contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Seeing

NON-DUALITY AND YOGA NIDRA

This post is built around Dr. Richard Miller’s approach to Yoga Nidra (1) and my response to it. The resource I am working with – a book and a CD – was published in 2005. My concern in writing is with how a “meditative practice for deep relaxation and healing” can also be what one reviewer (2) described as the “perfect tool” for the author’s non-dual teachings. For the recommended practices “require only presence, and as such represent both the path and the goal of non-dual practice.”

The word non-dual is a translation of the Sanskrit advaita, literally ‘not two’. I remember a podcast in which Peter Russell (3), a long-term practitioner and writer in this field, cautioned against a tendency to equate ‘not two’ with ‘one’. He then told an ancient Indian story about the making of clay pots. A potter takes a lump of clay and makes two pots. One clay; two pots. In the Indian tradition, this is a ‘consciousness first’ understanding, and modern versions draw on terms like presence, awareness, ground of being, or true nature to point to our ultimate identity as this consciousness. ‘God’ is also used in this way. The understanding is that we are never separate from this identity, though we may feel separate from it, or forget it, or ‘not believe’ in it. After all, most of our attention is on our individual life in the world with all its pulls, stresses and demands.

Early in his book, Richard Miller describes his first experience of Yoga Nidra:

“Our instructor led us through Shavasana, the traditional yogic pose for inducing deep relaxation while lying completely still on the floor. The instructor expertly guided us into being conscious of sensations throughout our body, as well as to opposing experiences, such as warmth-coolness, agitation-calmness, fear-equanimity, sorrow-joy, and separation-oneness. I was invited to rotate may attention through the sensations elicited by pairs of opposites until I was able to embody these opposing experiences with neither attachment or aversion to what I was experiencing.

“I drove home that evening feeling totally relaxed and expansively present. For the first time in years, I felt free of all conflict, radiantly joyful, and attuned wit the entire universe. I experienced life as being perfect just as it was and felt myself to be a spacious nonlocalized presence. Instead of my usual experience of being in the world, I was having a nonmental experience of the world being within me, similar to experiences I had known as a child”.

Miller’s motivation to continue was “a longing in me to consciously awaken into and fully abide as this sense of presence”. As well as becoming a yoga teacher and psychotherapist he has worked with Direct Path teachings as a student of Jean Klein. He describes the very term Yoga Nidra as a paradox, a play on the words ‘sleep’ and ‘awake’ as it means ‘the sleep of the Yogi’. The implication is that the normal person is asleep to their true nature through all states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – while the Yogi is one who is awake and knows his or her true nature across all states, including sleep. The practice therefore involves both deep relaxation and deep inquiry.

A full practice on Miller’s CD begins with two commitments – one to a form of mindfulness at the edge of sleep where, for the reasons pointed to above, it is OK to ‘fall asleep’ since there is a trust that the process will continue to run at other levels. The second is described as a ‘heartfelt prayer’, articulated as though it has already been fulfilled – for in the absolute, there is only now: Miller gives the example ‘my friend is whole, healed and healthy’. Then the meditation moves through seven stages, the first six of which address specific forms of awareness: body and sensation; breath and energy; feelings and emotions; thoughts, beliefs and images; desire, pleasure and joy; and witness/ego-I. The final stage (sahaj) is our natural state, ‘the awareness of changeless Being’. Each stage provides an opportunity to identify conventionally positive and conventionally negative experiences, and to hold both in a wider embrace. The sixth stage inquires into the very nature of the ‘I’ that believes itself to be a separate witness, enabling the simple being of the final stage. The whole practice lasts about 35 minutes.

I’ve been looking for an evening practice to complement my morning one. After only a week, it has the right feel, the right format and the right length for me at this point in my life. Over the last three or four years non-duality has become my common sense. During this period I have worked a good deal with the ‘Seeing’ experiments of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (4) and also with substantial resources from Direct Path teachers Greg Goode (5) and Rupert Spira (6). A non-dual view, as a working assumption, is now both cognitively and experientially well installed.

I don’t have a deep interest in non-dualist metaphysics for its own sake. I am deeply committed to this world and my human life. What I find is that a non-dual model of reality adds to my experience of human life in the world, and cannot be separated from it. I find myself leaning in to this nourishing and illuminating possibility, and committed to commit to living by it. Roger Miller’s Yoga Nidra has met me where I am. I am very grateful for this gentle, life-affirming, and subtle practice, which helps to maintain me on this path.

(1) Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Holding Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005

(2) Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom Of Yoga

(3) https://www.peterrussell.com/

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path: A User Guide Non-Duality Press, 2012 (UK edition)

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

THE TEMPLE SPACE

“In this Temple Space (Aeon) you become all things,

and you see yourself no more;

and in that All-Other you become all things

and never cease to be yourself.

“Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers and sisters. They are inseparable.

“This is why goodness in not always good, violence not always violent, life not always enlivening, death not always deadly …

“All that is composite will decompose

and return to its Origin;

but those who are awake to the Reality

without beginning or end, will know the uncreated, the eternal.

“The words we give to earthly realities engender illusion; they turn the heart away from the Real to the unreal. The one who hears the word God does not perceive the Real, but an illusion or an image of the Real.

“It is impossible to see the everlasting Reality and not become like it.

The Truth is not realised like truth in the world:

those who see the sun do not become the sun;

those who see the sky, the earth or anything that exists, do not become what they see.

“But when you see something in this other space, you become it.

If you know the Breath, you are the Breath.

If you know the Christ, you become the Christ.

If you see the Father, you become the Father”.

Jean-Yves LeLoup The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, And the Gnosis of Sacred Union Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 2003.)

Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip is a Nag Hammadi text, and a central one for a nondual current within Christian Gnosticism. In places the text seems almost Taoist (the fluid inter-relatedness of polarities within a greater unity, the suspicion of words and naming). For me it also resonates with the practice of Seeing in the tradition of Douglas Harding (see http://www.headless.org) It is one of my ‘special books’(see https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/

DOUGLAS HARDING ON STRESS

“The whole truth about you is three-fold. Instead of being the mere thing they told you you were, you turn out to be (i) No-thing at all, and (ii) the Totality of things (and, as these, altogether safe) and (iii) every particular thing that lies between (and, as such, altogether unsafe and at risk). Yes, you are wholly free from harm by your very nature as (i) and (ii), and wholly free from the stresses and strains of the world of things: and, by your very nature as (iii) wholly caught up in them. The difference between you as Container (i & ii) and as Contents (iii) is infinite, the separation is nil. On the one hand, each of those things counts as just itself, just one thing. You, on the other hand count as zero and an infinity of things, and each of them in particular, as well. As 0 and ∞ you are stress-free. As what lies between them you are stress-bound.” (1)

Harding goes on to describe how “the contents that fill your ever-peaceful Container build a Universe out of their clashing”, as a horseshoe takes shape from the downward blows of the hammer and the upthrust of the anvil. But does that mean that we have to take on all the world’s stress, “all its catastrophes and pain and alienation – even finding room for its terrible weight of greed and hate and fear? … How can you be the stress-free All without embracing every stressful part?”

Harding addresses these questions by looking at four people and their responses to personal and collective suffering.

The first is a Red Cross worker who showed an agony of stress in her voice and on her face. “She could not have cared more. Her involvement was complete, her detachment non-existent”. For Harding, it seemed that her wellbeing and effectiveness were compromised by a lack of access to that “interior Rest … which can not only receive without harm, but also transmute, all the world’s unrest”.

The second is Douglas Harding himself, on first becoming a Seer and discovering that Emptiness which gave “peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden”. He had learned the lesson of absolute detachment, but not yet the lesson of absolute involvement. He writes that his support of famine relief efforts in Bengal, where he was serving at the time (it was 1943), were real, but “uninvolved, detached, cool”.

The third is the Bengali saint and seer Anandamayi Ra, who Harding met at her ashram twenty years later. He remembers her ability to weep alongside a bereaved mother, fully sharing her grief, without losing her own serenity. “She took on the other’s grief by being herself free of grief, just as she took on the other’s face by being herself faceless. Fully to appreciate what this means in practice you have, like Ma, to see steadily Who you are. To get the point you have only to see, right now, how your own Emptiness is empty for these comments on her”. Harding concludes “Anandamayi Ra was neither attached to nor detached from the mother and her grief. She was both. Her message for her devotee, as for me then and ever since that memorable occasion was, I AM YOU”.

The fourth is Mother Teresa who, according to Harding, had “in her own fashion … broken through to confidence in place of fear, love in place of hate, abandon and detachment and surrender in place of craving.” She too had solved the problem of stress by immersion in it, “by being it absolutely and not being it absolutely”.

Harding concludes with three recommendations for day-to-day practice. The first is to “stop playing ostrich” about our own mortality and our collective human vulnerability to catastrophe, including catastrophes we create for ourselves. We have no reason to expect that “our troubles will somehow blow over. They won’t”. The second is to check in regularly with our place of safety – Who we really are, through Harding’s own exercises or some other means. The third, however, is not to get stuck in the Container at the expense of its contents, the world. Harding says that this isn’t a recommendation for moderation, but for extremism, and finding the unique role that best expresses “this truly amazing union of perfect freedom with total involvement … let us remember that living thus, consciously, is the very best thing we can do for our disaster-prone world”.

(1) Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

See also: http://www.headless.org/

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

SEEING: CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

There is a dance between experience and meaning. Experience informs meaning, yet the meaning given to significant experiences can change over time, in the light of later experiences. Looking back at my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1), I now sense that my contemplative journey was triggered by a kind of Wild Seeing, long before I encountered the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org/ ). Here is what I wrote.

“On 22 June 2007 my centre of gravity shifted. It was late morning. I was just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose, drawn in three possible directions. One was up the hills at the back of the town – the Eildon Hills, the hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took Thomas the Rhymer; True Thomas as he became. The second was the fine, if half-ruined, Abbey and its grounds; a place of Green Man carvings, fruit trees, and the heart of Robert the Bruce. The third was the banks of the Tweed.

“I took the third option and walked into a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany. It was triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose, growing on the banks of the river. It lasted a few moments, just long enough for me to register it, and to experience a subtle shift of awareness in consequence. For some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection. Months later, I wrote the verse that expressed it:

I am Rose. I am wild Rose.

I am Rose at Midsummer.

The river flows by me.

Fragile, I shiver in the wind.

And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.”

I was aware at the time that I was contrasting three choices in a fairy tale kind of way. The first was the path of magic (the Queen of Elfland). The second was the path of contemplative religion (Melrose Abbey). The third was the path of direct experience (wild rose on the riverbank). I chose the third. The poem best shows the import of this deceptively simple experience, especially in the last line. ‘I am the heart’s core; mover of mountains’ is more than a nature mysticism. I speak not only as the rose, but as the heart’s core, mover of mountains. I speak from the source.

During its collective life, contemplative Druidry did take its stand in direct experience. It was also very open – we talked of being of like intent rather than like mind; there was no consensus cosmology or belief. On the whole we were naturalistic, but not quite in the humanist or materialist sense. The use of terms like ‘Earth spirituality. ‘nature mysticism’. pantheism’ and ‘animism’ pointed to something more expansive. Now my experiences of  Seeing, support the view advocated by Douglas Harding and described as nondualist and panentheist. In everyday terms we can say that we have two identities, one as humans and the other as the ground of being. Ultimately, there is no separation and so only one true identity. Seeing is offered as a skilful means of learning to recognise this identity, and then to live from it.

My Sophian Way is now firmly in this territory. My challenge is to cleave to the experiential practice and its fruits whilst staying open about metaphysical claims. The intelligence of the heart is nourished by this view and is attracted by the reassurance of a clear and simple narrative. The mind wants to stay agnostic and provisional. When mobilised, it can ferret out weaknesses in the view. The Sophian Way is a way of wisdom, as well as a salute to the cosmic mother and healer in the heart. Wisdom invites me to trust the process – maintaining just enough scepticism to avoid attachment to views.

(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

SEEING: CATHERINE HARDING

“There are so-called spiritual people who say that the world in an illusion, and I just don’t understand this. I don’t agree. One can’t say that everything is an illusion. I think it’s an insult to people who are really suffering, who are repressed and put in jail and tortured. To say that it’s an illusion shows total insensitivity. I feel for al the people in the world who are suffering: they are me and I am them.

“I think there are two realities: one is the earthly reality for the incarnated little ones; the other is the big One, the absolute reality. And the reality of the little ones is contained within the absolute reality. When you reach your Centre, when you reach the Clear Light, the two realities become one. The Clear Light is within everything and within everyone of us. Here the two meet.

“The stories of the little ones are real but they pass, of course, that is why people say it’s an illusion. But although something passes, it’s still real, it’s still something people have to endure.

“Form is void and void is form. The void is full with form. Obviously there are two realities: the reality of the void and the reality of the forms. But they are one. Two within One. They are not separated: the reality of human stories is contained within the absolute reality.

“I know there are people like the extraordinary Dutch woman who wrote letters from a concentration camp. I have the book here: Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. Light even in the midst of the horrors she was going through. But these kinds of people are really, really rare. I don’t know if I would have been able to be like her in that situation. And Ety Hillesum didn’t say that suffering is an illusion.

“I am living both realities at the same time – aren’t you? I am living the joy of being here with these beautiful flowers and with you next to me in this lovely apartment. At the same time I know it is a very limited reality, and I’m looking at it from the Clear Light, which is happening now within everything.

“Seeing gives us the great privilege of being able to be in the big One, to use Douglas’ terminology. Or if I can put in into other words: in the Clear Light, in the absolute reality. And at the same time we are aware of what is going on and are enjoying or suffering it.

“I can also put it the other way round: living in the present moment and enjoying it, and at the same time Seeing that this is all happening within my real nature, within who I really am.

“These flowers are not an illusion. I like them so much and I can see how they flourish, that they are beautiful and respond to my love. However, all this will pass, whereas who I am won’t: that’s the difference.” (1)

Catherine Harding companioned her husband Douglas in and teaching the Headless Way (2) and developing its community from the time they met in 1984 until Douglas’ death in 2007. Karin Visser met Catherine at a Headless Way gathering in Salisbury and they became close friends and  ‘sisters in Seeing’. The book is based on a series of visits and conversations, for which Karin flew from the Netherlands to Montpellier in the south of France where Catherine now lives. Catherine was born in Strasbourg in 1932 and learned to deal with grief and loss at an early age. The family was forced to leave Alsace and became refugees in Vichy France in 1940. Her father disappeared in 1942, probably killed for helping people who were fleeing the occupation authorities. Later she was distressed by vengeance taken against actual and suspected collaborators at the end of the war, precisely because ‘we’ were the perpetrators. From her teenage years, Catherine had experiences of what she calls the Clear Light, giving the sense of another, larger dimension. Seeing, when she discovered it, provided a simple means of accessing this dimension at will. What I like about her approach is its elegant combination of simplicity, profundity and compassion.

(1) Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

(2) www.headless.org/

SEEING: DOUGLAS HARDING AND ST. THOMAS

I’ve been working with The Gospel of Thomas (1), for two reasons. First, it is a non-dual text. Second, it comes from my native tradition, by which I here mean the one I was personally born into. The Gospel is a collection of stories and aphorisms attributed to the teacher Yeshua (Jesus), without any accompanying life-story.

Some of these are very unlike the stories and aphorisms we find in the canonical gospels, unlike enough to get the text banned in the later fourth century C.E., a time of hardening Christian Orthodoxy. But others appear within them. I remember hearing these as a small child who knew himself to have been baptised and given a Christian name. They captured my imagination, and I remember liking and indeed loving them.

Thanks to this background, Christianity – even in the form of an early ‘heresy’ – affects me differently from other paths. I need to be on guard against emotionally driven reverence and dismissal alike. Fortunately this is not too difficult with St. Thomas. There’s a way in which this text heals my relationship with the tradition of my birth, though without any call to renew my allegiance to it.

Douglas Harding was a non-dualist teacher who faced the same issue, only more so, having been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and subsequently become estranged from his family through religious differences. He wrote an essay about the Gospel of Thomas, giving it a warm welcome (2):

“In this early apocryphal Christian text, the living voice of Jesus comes down to us directly, bypassing all that men have been saying about him and doing in his name. It comes across distinctly, high above the confused roar of two millennia of Christianity, so-called. It’s as if he himself had planted this beneficent time-bomb in the cave at Nag Hammadi, carefully setting the fuse to delay its explosion till the world would be ready for the impact. It’s as if, so tragically far ahead of his own time, he knew when significant numbers of quite ordinary men and women (as distinct from highly specialised and disciplined saints and sages and seers) would at last be capable of catching up with his vision of the Light, his experience of what he calls the Kingdom.”

Harding also says that we owe it to such a teacher “not to believe in this teaching of his in Thomas, but to test it, sincerely verifying (and falsifying) the scriptures by our experience instead of our experience by the scriptures”. In the essay, he goes on to accomplish this by identifying parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and his own Headless Way (3).

I will deepen my work with the Gospel of Thomas. I already know the text quite well, but I think that my understanding of it has changed since my last close reading of it several years ago. I hope also to clear up any residual unfinished business with my Christian roots, and allow the text itself a stronger role in my ongoing life and practice.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

(2) 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)

(3) http://www.headless.org/

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY

Two months ago I wrote a about Thomas Traherne (1), pointing out an unexpected resonance between this seventeenth century English clergyman and the ideas of Douglas Harding (2). Only later did I discover that such parallels had already been noted – particularly by Alan Mann (3) and also The Incredible String Band, way back in the 1960’s (4).

Thanks to Alan Mann, I subsequently found my way to the Thomas Traherne Association (5) and attended the Traherne’s Day Celebrations on 10 October at Hereford Cathedral. These were built around a choral Evensong followed by a lecture. The speaker was the Revd Dr Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University. Prof Fiddes has a particular interest in the relations between theology and literature, and his topic was The Poetics of Desire in Thomas Traherne and C. S. Lewis.

Lewis admired Traherne, especially the Centuries of Meditations, though he felt that Traherne was insufficiently concerned with original sin and too ready to find heaven in the here and now. For Traherne wrote that every person “is alone the Centre and Circumference of [Infinity]. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie.” (6). He also wrote at the time when the Royal Society was founded and what we now call Science became respectable. Traherne followed progress with the telescope and microscope and the worlds they were beginning to reveal. Perhaps such developments and the inquiries they opened up encouraged him to write the lines:

“Heaven surely is a State and not a Place

To be in Heaven’s to be full of Grace.

Heaven is where’re we see God’s face.” (6)

and

“This busy, vast, enquiring Soul

Brooks no Controul,

No limits will endure,

Nor any Rest: It will all see

Not Time alone, but ev’n Eternity”. (6)

At the same time, Prof. Fiddes’ lecture showed how Lewis was at one with Traherne in apprehending a God who is present in human imagination and creativity – Traherne’s words being, “for God hath made you able to Creat Worlds in your own mind, which are more Precious unto Him that those which He created”. Perhaps reflections like this freed Lewis’ own imagination in his fiction:

“Each grain is at the centre. The dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there… Blessed be He! Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Because we are with him, each, each of us is at the centre … there seems no centre because it is all centre … “(7)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (8)

It was C.S. Lewis who helped Douglas Harding find a publisher for The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth and wrote the introduction to it. My knowledge of this link was a prompt to attend the Traherne Day lecture, though I might have gone any way. I was brought up in the Church of England, and C.S. Lewis had a place in my imaginative hinterland. So did metaphysical poetry (though not especially Traherne’s), before I parted ways. I enjoyed Evensong last Monday, especially hearing the choir. Whilst feeling no pull to re-communicate, I felt very much at peace both with the aspect of heritage and that of spiritual community. This was a blessing in itself, and I am grateful for the occasion and to the people who made it happen.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/seeing-thomas-traherne

(2) headless.org

(3) capacitie.org

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2m7rYjZ54

(5) thomastraherneassociation.org

(6) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

(7) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra London: Bles, 1943

(8) C.S. Lewis The Last Battle London: Collins, 1956

(9) Douglas Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the universe London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (Introduction by C.S. Lewis)

 

PRESENT ENCOUNTER

 

I am living a human life back-lit by the practice of Seeing. In a sense, this is relatively new and very welcome. I have a formal morning practice in which, for a little while in linear time, I stand as the “silent stillness of Seeing”. This sets the tone for my day. I taste my true nature in ways not fully matched in previous forms of meditation.

In another, profounder sense, I recognise that it has ‘always’ been this way and could not be otherwise. As J. Jennifer Matthews says: “there is clarity: luminous, still and silent clarity. It is with you and in you. It is you. It always exists. No it never takes a break; no it never goes out for just one cigarette. It is the wholeness you can never fall out of. Not in your drunkest, sorriest, most hysterical moments, not even then can you fall out of this clear and sacred perfection” (1).

Matthews is concerned to emphasise that we never really leave the clarity of the here-and-now.  She talks of the present moment as the ‘present encounter’, which for me is an apt way of talking about capacity for the world within the moment, taking a state into the realm of process and action. This present encounter is the only one there is, and so the act of recognition, our apparent ‘return’ to the mystery and intimacy of the encounter, is not to be thought of as the attainment of a goal.  For Matthews such a conceptualisation can only feed into an ‘addiction’ to self-improvement, an addiction which hooks us into distant external goals (jobs, partners, accomplishments), distant internal goals (enlightenment), and toxic relationships with teachers who, “by situating freedom in some future event that they will control … are stealing your wallet and helping you look for it”.

Yet I do feel different, speaking as a human, as the little ‘i’, than before my involvement with Headless Way teaching and practice. The entry, as an initial step, into a key reference experience I hadn’t had before, has shifted my way of being and refined my understanding. I know that I’m talking here at the level of narrative human identity, and not sub specie aeternatis where I simply AM  clear awake space, my true nature.  But engagement with spiritual teachings and movements is part of being human, and picking the healthy, emancipatory ones is part of aware (in the ‘normal’, cognitive sense) human discrimination. That the Cosmos may know itself, I and i, I and you, i and you, you and you – these complex and varied partnerships, co-create the present encounter.

(1) Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just who you are

 

 

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