A Gathering on the Shore
"The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the [meditation] cushion, not on it."
*Stephen Batchelor. The Art of Solitude.
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I walk the path behind where I live in coastal Maine. It is late December... Christmas is only days away. Just days prior, we got our first big snow. The track has been untrodden most of the way. It is thick with snowfall. After moving north three years from sunny Florida, I learned how exhausting walking in snow can be and how the body expends more energy in the cold trying to keep warm. And my energy seems low quickly, for I have been ill, as well as exhausted from a series of life-changes piling up one after the other. But I walk on, determined to finish the daily walk of thirty minutes.
On the return toward the farmhouse, I come upon the last stretch of path. I can step within the prints I left earlier, as I walk up a slight hill, the back of the two red barns before me - the one to the left a dairy barn. I feel how much easier the walk is. I am glad to have these prints to walk in.
I recall how this is like the mind; we find it easier to think in the paths we have thought before, thoughts we are familiar with. I recollect how this is a biological fact. We have pathways in the brain, "ruts" is the word that comes to mind. One can question the extent we think at all, for thoughts, like feelings, seem more to come to us than our choose them. Yet, with meditation, we learn how to go into the space around and between thoughts, not attached to what arises, and we have some freedom to choose to choose thoughts. Yet, this requires dedicated practice. For me, it was many years before I felt this spaciousness to see thoughts as thoughts, not my thoughts or me thinking.
Like walking in my footprints today, it is easier not to think at all, just mindlessly move about in the thoughts of yesterday. In not taking what feels like a risk - this openness to see afresh, to welcome new and unfamiliar insight -, we forfeit being open to how Life might be and how it might surprise us. We humans are often too lazy when it comes to thinking and too afraid to think at all. It is easier to repeat, not think.
If only we would be willing to step outside the familiar way of seeing reality and let Wisdom show us the truth right before us and all around us. If we did this, we would find there is nothing to fear about opening our minds to see and, so, live anew. We would find joy in what we had long forgotten but still lived inside us, waiting to be awakened to enliven our world and us again.
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The main purpose of a spiritual path is not the gaining of new information, it is to train us in how to see. Hence, the path is like the work of poets and prophets, both of whom seek to give us new eyes.
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I walk into the brunch. It is the Spring of 2016. The chaplain team meets at this restaraunt in Gainesville, FL. We have met here twice before. I am not against being here but would prefer not to be. I would rather be on the road making visits to patients. And I never look forward to being around my colleague from the site I work. I feel unrest around her. Events, beginning my first week, have led to this unease. She and I are like oil and water or summer and snow. You can love some persons that you never want to be around.
I am in my first few months at the hospice, having moved from Georgia to Florida. We do not all work at the same site - there are five sites. This meeting allows us all from our region to meet, fellowship, and discuss our work, but the primary purpose is to enjoy each other's company. Not all the chaplains meet here. Others on the chaplain team work in sites too far away to be here.
I am wearing around my neck a Tibetan Buddhist mala. A colleague asks, pointing to the mala, "What does that mean?" The reply comes forth spontaneously, "Nothing." The "Nothing" surprised me, seeming to come from a deeper place than the mind. I said it, but I, Brian the person, did not choose to say it. And the sense of its truthfulness pervaded the "Nothing." I feel as if I could not have said anything else, as if in that moment that was the only response possible in the cosmos. A single moment of revelation untained by that wild and timeless capacity we call the mind.
The colleague appears puzzled, not knowing what to say. He apparently expected an answer he would see as logical. It was logical, but it is clear that it was not to him. He remains speechless. The others give a look of alarm and bewilderment. No one seems able to dare the question, "What do you mean?" Or to challenge me, "How ridiculous!" or "How rude!" It seems this "Nothing" may have arisen as a spontaneous koan-like reply - koans dethrone the mind, throwing it mercilessly off its boastful pedestal. The mind dropping, we are welcomed into the heart of hearts - the gateway between the Supernal and all its varied display we call Nature and Creation.
After a few moments, we proceed as though the question and answer did not happen. Yet, the answer reminds me there is a Wisdom much deeper than us as persons, and that Wisdom comes as a gift - or so it appears.
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The poet John Keats coined "negative capability." A facet of negative capability is the artist being open to the truth, or suchness, of what is without trying to fit it in some framework of what supposedly should be. He cited Shakespear as highly gifted in this capacity.
In entering the Silence and engaging in inner stillness, we can practice this negative capability. All meditation leads to this. We keep the mind-and-heart open just to be with what appears. We allow it to be itself to us. Being itself is it showing itself. We do not overlay it with our thought of what it should and should not be.
This surrender does not mean we will come to some conceptual idea of what something is. Not knowing may be the fruition of receptivity: that is, we know something in not knowing what it is. Still, something will always arise as a response to the openness, even if that seems to be a mute intimacy, a welcoming confusion, or a playful curiosity.
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Practicing this openness-intimacy becomes part of life outside meditation. We can sit with persons, objects, and situations, even loss and suffering, and ask in attitude or word, "What are you?" or "What is this?" We grow so that this openness becomes our standard mode of interaction, not even doing it consciously.
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In The Art of Solitude, Stephen Batchelor tells of learning to pose a simple question while meditating: "What is this?" The teacher gave the attendees this question to contemplate over many sits. You may wish to ask the question without posing it to anything. You may want to direct it in response to something, maybe even the fact that you are sitting where you are... just sitting. Just sitting here, now... "What is this?"
Some readers will recognize what we speak of here is what Buddhists call "beginner's mind," a phrase coined by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Beginner's mind is like seeing the world with fresh eyes, unclouded by the past. This openness means to see differently, which means genuinely to see. The world takes on a pervasive freshness. Curiosity becomes the norm. Confusion becomes a sign of faith, not of a lack of faith. One falls in love with the world. How could one not when seeing it newly arising moment-to-moment?
"Newly arising" means a consistent awareness of freshness. Your awareness and the world are arising together. The arising is like the lens of the eyes are always clean. And it is important to let this freshness show itself - it appears more and less than what we mean by "freshness." This is paradoxical, for sublimity is the same as ordinary. So, the freshness can appear as rather mundane, for it is not appealing to the senses but takes on the tone of the Source. Adjusting to this takes time, for we are used to associating Reality with the unusual, the feels great, the emotionally ecstatic, the non-ordinary, the other-worldly, and the rare. This freshness can, yes, manifest in ways outside our usual sense of the ordinary, but this is the same freshness as before. One may take an elevator to the heavens, so to speak, but will find "up there" what is "down here."
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My sense is the "Nothing" reply to my colleague arose from a deeper space than the mind. I cannot say it came from me. This response was possible due to years of practicing meditation. Such wisdom has been spoken through me, spontaneously and often amid a public speech. I have often realized during an address that the speech being given was not what I had prepared. I have even told the audience so. They always seemed, by that time, to understand and appreciate. I think they could feel the words were coming freshly from an intuitive arising of power and wisdom, like a green herb from the ground rather than some processed food having sat in several freezing units before getting onto the table and into the tummy.
So, another mind (i.e., wisdom, truth, insight) will arise as you learn to drop your mind (i.e., thoughts, preconceptions, opinions). Different religions will speak of this differently. Some Buddhists speak of Buddha Mind. As does its Bible, some Christians refer to the "mind of Christ." Some traditions, including Judaism, refer to Sophia as the Voice of Wisdom. Yet, its arising is as natural as the "Nothing." The more we get out of the way, most often meaning our opinions, the more Wisdom can speak. And sitting or reclining quietly, relaxing in openness, we can work with this practice of listening deeply.
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Here, listening is not listening in the usual sense, in which we are listening for something. We are in communion, not treating what is with us as an object. Listening, here, is simply listening... a wakeful receptivity to what is given us to see. We will always see something, even if what we see is simply a mystery that remains unveiled to us. In fact, revelation can be just that: something which shows itself as what remains hidden but accessible to deep, undiluted feeling.
Yet, the challenge in this listening is a sense of risk. We may fear we will not receive any feedback. What if I hear nothing? We may have trepidation that we will listen to what we would rather not hear. These hesitations can become the subject of open inquiry, too. We can say of this felt-risk, "What is this?" You might receive in return a pleasant surprise.
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2021.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.