contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Thomas Merton

POEM: IN SILENCE

Be still

Listen to the stones of the wall.

Be silent, they try

To speak your

 

Name.

Listen

To the living walls.

Who are you?

Who

Are you? Whose

Silence are you?

 

Who (be quiet)

Are you (as these stones

Are quiet). Do not

Think of what you are

Still less of

What you may one day be.

Rather

Be what you are (but who?) be

The unthinkable one

You do not know.

 

Oh be still, while

You are still alive,

And all things live around you

Speaking (I do not hear)

To your own being,

Speaking by the Unknown

That is in you and in themselves.

 

“I will try, like them

To be my own silence:

And this is difficult. The whole

World is secretly on fire. The stones

Burn, even the stones

They burn me. How can  man be still or

Listen to all things burning? How can he dare

To sit with them when

All their silence

Is on fire?”

 

Thomas Merton Silence, Joy: A Selection of Writings New York: New Directions, 2018

 

VALUES IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

What form of inquiry best serves our times and the kind of consciousness we carry? This post, focusing on values, is the first of five on the topic. The nest three will cover methods and the final post will concern issues of interpretation.

Wishing to deepen my own intent and practice, I have been identifying helpful resources. One of these is Arthur Zajonc’s Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love (1). Having dedicated my own contemplative inquiry to Sophia, I was delighted to discover, in Zajonc’s approach, a Sophian sensibility.

In Zajonc’s account the purpose of contemplative practice is to join insight and compassion, wisdom with love. Such a practice supports an awakening into what the New England sage Henry David Thoreau called the ‘poetic and divine life’.  Culturally, this means opening to an ecological world view, and a larger project of “embracing methods of inquiry that can accommodate the great advances of science but not be limited by the dogmatic perspectives of materialism and its associated economics”.  Now retired, Zajonc was until recently Professor of Physics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, also directing its Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society – see http://www.contemplativemind.org . He was involved with setting up the Mind and Life Institute (see https://www.mindandlife.org), which, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, is concerned with the scientific study of contemplative practice. As well as this he is a former General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, and his specific contemplative methods derive from the Steiner tradition.

Zajonc models a contemplative inquiry that is in and of the world, yet makes a clearly defined space for itself. On one hand he quotes Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary General 1953-61, as saying: “in our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action”. On the other he offers the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s warning that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times”.

Zajonc sees science/contemplation/insight/service as a package, which it clearly has been for him, and his own advice on approaching contemplative inquiry is to begin with an attitude of humility and reverence. For some, the route is prayer. For others, it is a sense of wonder and awe towards nature. In the latter respect, he quotes John Muir: “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves” (2). Whether prayer or nature be the contemplative’s aid, there will be a certain setting aside of self and the moral confusions of egotism.

At the same time, Zajonc is from a Western tradition and sees a strong sense of individuality as a gift rather than a problem. A certain ‘inner solitude’, which makes us all potential hermits in the clamour of daily life, leads to fuller relationships, connects us to the ‘depth’ of the other, and indeed cherishes the very solitude of the other: solitude and love go together. Despite the power that group practice can have, Zajonc believes that solo practice is more essential. Group practice can become a ‘crutch’. Groups themselves need to honour freedom and individuality, and Zajonc stresses that the moral conditions for contemplative practice cannot be and should not be imposed from outside. I was pleased to read this. This view of the relationship of individual to group is very much what we have practised in Contemplative Druidry over the last four years, and it has served us well.

In recommended forms of preparatory meditation, we learn to enhance our sensory awareness, and our inner relationships with earth, water, air and light. We also learn to put space around our ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. They no longer consume us. As we hold them in awareness, neither falling back into them nor repressing them, we move from the standpoint of our storying selves to a silent self who can observe these dramas from a distance and with compassionate understanding. This opens up contemplative space, and teaches generosity through an invitation to practice it on our own distressed and rejected parts. Here Zajonc quotes Rumi:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing

And invite them in

Be grateful for whoever comes

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Contemplative inquiry is first person inquiry, working from the perspective of what phenomenologists call ‘the subjective life world’, yet it also reaches out to develop I-Thou relationship with what is being contemplated. Instead of distancing itself from direct experience for the sake of objectivity, “contemplative inquiry does exactly the opposite. It seeks to engage direct experience, to participate more fully in the phenomena of consciousness. It achieves ‘objectivity’ in a different manner, namely through self-knowledge and what [the 18th century German polymath] Goethe, in his scientific writings, named a ‘delicate empiricism’”.

Zajonc affirms that nothing can reveal itself to us which we do not love, so every way of contemplative knowing becomes a way of loving. Every epistemology [theory of knowledge] becomes an ethic. For him, contemplative inquiry is built on nine characteristics. This is my reading of what they do. The first two, respect and gentleness, set the conditions for aware engagement. With the next two, intimacy and participation, engagement becomes relationship. The next three are about the contemplative observer’s own willingness to change: the vulnerability of openness makes this possible; transformation represents significant responsiveness and change. ‘Organ formation’ suggests radical change, the development of new capacities fully to meet what we are engaging with – in the way that our remote pre-human ancestors became sensitive to light and gradually developed eyes for seeing. We know that intensive long-term meditation can change the brain, and even in modest and less obvious ways we are changed by what we attend to.  Zajonc’s last two characteristics are illumination and insight – the fruits of contemplative inquiry.

All of this makes me feel like a child in this field, and this does have advantages – novelty, wonder, lots to learn and explore. For now, ‘delicate empiricism’ is a phrase to take to heart.

  • Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 2009
  • John Muir Our national parks Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1901

THE WOODCARVER

Khing, the master woodcarver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood. When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied, “I am only a workman.

I have no secret. There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit. I did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to

Set my heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days,

I had forgotten praise and criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

By this time al thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

Al that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

Then I went into the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond

doubt.

All that I had to do was to put forth my hand

And begin.

If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

What happened?

My own collected though

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

Merton, Thomas (1965 & 2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.

 

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

POEM: THE BREATH OF NATURE

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds

Which, noiseless in themselves,

Awaken voices from other beings,

Blowing on them.

From every opening

Loud voices sound. Have you not heard

This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood

On the steep mountain:

Oak trees with holes and cracks

Like snouts maws and ears,

Like beam-sockets, like goblets,

Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.

You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,

Shouts of command, grumblings,

Deep drones, sad flutes.

One call awakens another in dialogue.

Gentle winds sing timidly,

Strong ones blast on without restraint.

Then the wind dies down. The openings

Empty out their last sound.

Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:

The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.

The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.

What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:

Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.

Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.

What is this power?

From:  Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

CONTEMPLATION AND THE HIDDEN MOTHER

This is a ‘learning from other traditions’ post. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writes about Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist sage and story teller.

“Chuang Tzu is not merely a professional recluse. The ‘man of Tao’ does not make the mistake of giving up self-conscious virtuousness in order to immerse himself in an even more self-conscious contemplative self-recollection. One cannot call Chuang Tzu a Contemplative in the sense of one who adopts a programme of spiritual self-purification to attain to certain definite interior experiences, or even merely to ‘cultivate the interior life.’ Chuang Tzu would condemn this just as roundly as the ‘cultivation’ of anything else on an artificial basis. All deliberate, systematic, and reflexive ‘self-cultivation’, whether active or contemplative, personalistic or politically committed, cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensable contact with Tao, the hidden ‘Mother’ of all life and truth. One of the things that causes the young disciple of Keng Shan Chu (in a Chuang Tzu story) to be so utterly frustrated is precisely that he shuts himself up in a cell and tries to cultivate qualities which he thinks desirable and get rid of others he dislikes. … The true tranquillity is Ying ning, tranquillity in the action of non-action, in other words, a tranquillity which transcends the division between activity and contemplation by entering into union with the nameless and invisible Tao.”

For me, there is a fine line between making a real commitment to contemplative practice and allowing it to become an idolatry. I find that it does ask me to be intentional, to devote time and effort, to be willing to learn the  skills. So I have some sympathy for the immature student gleefully lampooned in the story. Yet I resonate with the larger point and look forward to shedding a residual anxiety and striving, a slightly distressed earnestness, in what I do. To release wonder more fully, to be immersed in exploration, and to experience connection with a Mystery that cannot, in the last resort, be named or possessed. I’m not sure whether this is what either Thomas Merton or Chuang Tzu were getting at, but it’s what I take from this reading.

Merton, Thomas (1965 &2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.

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