Into the Silent Land
By Martin Laird
Parting the Veil: The Illusion of Separation from God
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. —William Blake
A young prisoner cuts himself with a sharp knife to dull emotional pain. “As long as I can remember,” he says, “I have had this hurt inside. I can’t get away from it, and sometimes I cut or burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.” Acknowledging this to himself, he decided to approach the Prison Phoenix Trust, whose aim is to address the spiritual needs of prisoners by teaching them how to pray, how to turn their prison cells into monastic cells. After learning how to meditate and practicing it twice a day for several weeks, the young prisoner speaks movingly of what he has learnt. “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and at night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself that I can like.” Another prisoner discovers he is becoming more human and realizes in the process, “All beings, no matter how reactionary, fearful, dangerous or lost, can open themselves to the sacred within and become free. I have become free even in prison. Prison is the perfect monastery.”1 The spiritual liberation of which these prisoners speak is not something they acquired. The clear sense of their testimony is that they discovered, rather than acquired, this “sacred within.”
The distinction between acquisition and discovery may seem like hairsplitting, but it is important to see that what the one prisoner calls the “sacred within” did not come from some place outside him. The contemplative discipline of meditation, what I will call in this book contemplative practice, doesn’t acquire anything. In that sense, and an important sense, it is not a technique but a surrendering of deeply imbedded resistances that allows the sacred within gradually to reveal itself as a simple, fundamental fact. Out of this letting go there emerges what St. Paul called our “hidden self”: “may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong” (Eph 3:16). Again, contemplative practice does not produce this “hidden self” but facilitates the falling away of all that obscures it. This voice of the liberated hidden self, the “sacred within,” joins the Psalmist’s, “Oh, Lord, you search me and you know me. … It was you who created my inmost self. … I thank you for the wonder of my being” (Ps 138 (9):1, 13, 14). Through their experience of interior stillness these prisoners unwittingly have joined a chorus of saints and sages who proclaim by their lives that this God we seek has already found us, already looks out of our own eyes, is already, as St. Augustine famously put it, “closer to me than I am to myself.”2 “O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,” he continues, “you were within and I was outside myself.”3 One of the more provocative books concerning life with God is known as The Cloud of Unknowing. It is an anonymous work from the English Middle Ages and its author, likely a Carthusian monk, is simply known as the author of The Cloud. In this work, as well as in a companion piece, The Book of Privy Counselling, the author of The Cloud offers much helpful advice and encouragement to anyone who feels drawn to contemplation. With startling frankness he says, “God is your being, and what you are, you are in God.” So as not to cause doctrinal eyebrows to spike he quickly qualifies his statement, “But you are not God’s being.” Not only has this God we desire already found us, thus causing our desire, but God has never not found us. “It was you who created my inmost self and put me together in my mother’s womb. You know me through and through, from having watched my bones take shape when I was being formed in secret” (Ps 139:13-15). “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5).
As Creator, God is the ground of who we are. “God is your being.” The author of The Cloud is not an isolated voice in this matter. The great Carmelite doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, says, “The soul’s center is God.”6 God is the ground of the human being. Various Christian traditions may argue over orthodox or heterodox ways of understanding this, but there is clear and authoritative testimony based on living the Christian mysteries that if we are going to speak of what a human being is, we have not said enough until we speak of God. If we are to discover for ourselves who we truly are—that inmost self that is known before it is formed, ever hidden with Christ in God (Ps 139:13; Jer 1:5; Col 3:3)—the discovery is going to be a manifestation of the ineffable mystery of God, though we may feel more and more inclined to say less and less about God. As St. Diadochos of Photiki observed, there are some who are adept in the spiritual life and “consciously illuminated by spiritual knowledge, yet do not speak about God,”Union with God is not something that needs to be acquired but realized. The reality, which theterm “union” points to (along with a host of other metaphors), is already the case. The unfolding in our lives of this fundamental union is what St. John of the Cross called “the union of likeness.”8 It is our journey from image to likeness (Gen 1:26).
Acquisition and its strategies obviously have a role in life. It is important to pursue and acquire good nutrition, reasonable health, a just society, basic self-respect, the material means by which to live, and a host of other things. However, they don’t have a real role in the deeper dynamics of life. For example, they play no role in helping us to die or to become aware of God. Dying is all about letting go and letting be, as is the awareness of God. People who have traveled far along the contemplative path are often aware that the sense of separation from God is itself pasted up out of a mass of thoughts and feelings. When the mind comes into its own stillness and enters the silent land, the sense of separation goes. Union is seen to be the fundamental reality and separateness a highly filtered mental perception. It has nothing whatever to do with the loss of one’s ontological status as a creature of God, nothing to do with becoming an amorphous blob. Quite the opposite, it is the realization this side of death of the fundamental mystery of our existence as the creation of a loving God. “Of you my heart has spoken, “seek His face’” (Ps 27:8). “For God alone my soul in silence waits” (Ps 62:1,6). “God is your being, and what you are you are in God, but you are not God’s being.”9“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”10 Once this depth dimension of life emerges, New Testament resonances, especially with John and Paul, reach the whole world (Ps 19:4).
John’s Gospel is well known for its concern for this divine indwelling. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us.” (Jn 17:21). Paul, the author of the oldest New Testament writings we have, is an important witness to this. In the Letter to the Galatians he writes, “I have been Crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:19). Paul looks within and sees not Paul but Christ. Are Paul and Christ two separate things? They are two separate things from the perspective of creation, yes, but from the perspective of the transformation of awareness, no. When Paul looks within and sees Christ, I do not suggest he sees Christ as an object of awareness. Paul speaks of something more direct and immediate, which pertains to the ground of awareness and not to the objects of awareness. The awareness itself is somehow about the presence of Christ in Paul. “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” Paul has not used the word “union,” but he’s getting at the same reality that the language of union attempts to express. Obviously, a CCTV camera watching Paul say all this is going to show the same old Paul. This has to do with the ground of awareness, not what he’s aware of, but the ground of the aware-ing itself. Only when the mind is held by silence does this open field of awareness emerge as the unifying ground of all unities and communities, the ground of all that is, all life, all intelligence. Whatever this “Christ-living-in-me” is, and it is most assuredly not a particular thing, it holds true for each of us. My Christ-self is your Christ-self, our enemy’s Christ-self (2 Cor 10:7). A helpful image to express this sort of thing is a wheel with spokes centered on a single hub. The hub of the wheel is God; we the spokes. Out on the rim of the wheel the spokes are furthest from one another, but at the center, the hub, the spokes are most united to each other. They are a single meeting in the one hub. The image was used in the early church to say something important about that level of life at which we are one with each other and one with God. The more we journey towards the Center the closer we are both to God and to each other. The problem of feeling isolated from both God and others is overcome in the experience of the Center. This journey into God and the profound meeting of others in the inner ground of silence is a single movement. Exterior isolation is overcome in interior communion. Those who sound alarms regarding the realization of the contemplative path as being anti community reveal a shocking ignorance of this simple fact: the personal journey into God is simultaneously ecclesial and all-embracing. This in part is why people who have gone fairly deeply into the contemplative path, become open and vital people (however differently they may live this out). In this depthless depth we are caught up in a unity that grounds, affirms, and embraces all diversity. Communion with God and communion with others are realizations of the same Center. And this Center, according to the ancient definition, is everywhere. “God is that reality whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” For Paul it is precisely baptism that accomplishes this union. He writes in the Letter to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).
The indwelling presence of Christ is not only the core of human identity, but also something (a something that’s not a thing) that resolves dualities, which, at more superficial levels of awareness, appear to be opposites. Paul describes in the First Letter to the Colossians what baptism accomplishes. “Because you have died, the life you now have is hidden with Christ in God…. Christ is your life … you too will be revealed in all your glory with Christ” (Col 3:1—4). When Paul describes our life as being hidden with Christ in God, he is not using the word “life” in the sense that one’s career is one’s life, “being a doctor is my life,” “my children are my life.” He’s talking about something much deeper: what makes you exist rather than not exist. Paul and the author of The Cloud are very much on the same wavelength. The latter says, “God is your being,” and Paul to the people of Athens says that in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).12 When Paul says our life is something that is “hidden with Christ in God,” I think we should hear him saying something about our deepest self. There is a lot of talk in contemporary theology and philosophy about what a “self” is. One wonders how much of it Paul would have been able to follow, or care about for that matter. But he does have something evocative to contribute: your life, your “self,” who you truly are, is something that is “hidden with Christ in God.” Whatever there is about human identity that can be objectively known, measured, predicted, observed, whether by the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, the tax man, or the omniscient squint of your most insightful aunt, there is a foundational core of what we might as well call identity that remains hidden from scrutiny’s grip and somehow utterly caught up in God, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” in whom our very self is immersed. Precisely because our deepest identity, grounding the personality, is hidden with Christ in God and beyond the grasp of comprehension, the experience of this ground-identity that is one with God will register in our perception, if indeed it does register, as an experience of no particular thing, a great, flowing abyss, a depthless depth. To those who know only the discursive mind, this may seem a death-dealing terror or spinning vertigo. But for those whose thinking mind has expanded into heart-mind, it is an encounter brimming over with the flow of vast, open emptiness that is the ground of all. This “no thing,” this “emptiness” is not an absence but a superabundance. It is the fringe of love’s cloak (Matt 9:20). “Where can I run from your love; where can I flee from your presence. If I climb to the heavens you are there, there too if I lie in Sheol” (Ps 138:7-8). One need not have journeyed too far into this silent land to realize that the so-called psychological self, our personality (not what Paul is talking about as hidden with Christ in God) is a cognitive construct pasted up out of thoughts and feelings. A rather elaborate job has been done of it, and it is singularly useful. But our deepest identity, in which thoughts and feelings appear like patterns of weather on Mount Zion (Ps 125), remains forever immersed in the silence of God. The baptism of which Paul speaks (Col 3: 1-4; Gal 3:27-28) heralds a fundamental truth about our lives: the God we seek has from all eternity sought and found us (Jer 1:5) and is shining out our eyes.
For Christians the Eucharist likewise proclaims this foundational union with God. Preaching on the Eucharist in his Homily on the Feast of Pentecost, Augustine says to his congregation, “You are the mystery that is placed upon the Lord’s table. You receive the mystery that is yourself. To that which you are, you will respond, Amen.’”13 Much later John Ruysbroeck speaks of our union with God through the Eucharist in an almost overwhelming manner. “He enters the very marrow of our bones…. He consumes us without ever satisfying this illimitable hunger and immeasurable thirst. … He swoops upon us like a bird of prey to consume our whole life, that he may change it into His.”14 Baptism and Eucharist are the great sacraments of God’s self-giving. They create, cultivate, and sustain the foundational unity between God and humanity that is manifested in Christ. These are the sacraments of our deepest identity, hidden in the self-emptying of God in Christ.
Union with God is not something we acquire by a technique but the grounding truth of our lives that engenders the very search for God. Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience throughout most of our lives a sense of absence or distance from God is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word. This illusion of separation is generated by the mind and is sustained by the riveting of our attention to the interior soap opera, the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads. For most of us this is what normal is, and we are good at coming up with ways of coping with this perceived separation (our consumer-driven entertainment culture takes care of much of it). But some of us are not so good at coping, and so we drink ourselves into oblivion or cut or burn ourselves “so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.”15 The grace of salvation, the grace of Christian wholeness that flowers in silence, dispels this illusion of separation. For when the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God (Jn 17:21). The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened. When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion. For a lifetime we have taken this weather—our thoughts and feelings—to be ourselves, taken ourselves to be this video to which the attention is riveted. Stillness reveals that we are the silent, vast awareness in which the video is playing. To glimpse this fundamental truth is to be liberated, to be set free from the fowler’s snare (Ps 123:7).
“Who ever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakeable, it stands forever” (Ps 125:1). “Mount Zion, true pole of the earth, the great King’s city” (Ps 48:2).
Some who are tediously metaphysical might worry that all this talk of union with God blurs the distinction between Creator and creation. Far from blurring this distinction it sets it in sharper focus. John’s Gospel says we are the branches and Christ is the vine. (Jn 15:5). The branches are not separate from the vine but one with it. If the branch is cut off, you won’t have a branch, for it soon shrivels away. A branch is a branch insofar as it is one with the vine. From the branch’s perspective it is all vine. Speaking of this transformation of consciousness that marks the moving into awareness of our grounding union with God, Meister Eckhart says, “All things become pure God to you, for in all things you see nothing but God.”16 John of the Cross speaks along similar lines. “It seems to [the soul] that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for, conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love.”17 When life is lived from “the center,” as John of the Cross terms it, all of life seems shot through with God. We might liken the depths of the human to the sponge in the ocean. The sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it. The sponge would not be a sponge were this not the case. Some call this differentiating union: the more we realize we are one with God the more we become ourselves, just as we are, just as we were created to be. The Creator is outpouring love, the creation, the love outpoured.
Union with God respects all distinctions between creation and Creator and is characterized by awareness of the presence and the transparency of perceived boundaries. When our awareness loosens its arthritic grip to reveal a palm open and soft, awareness is silent and vast in the depths of the present moment. As Meister Eckhart put it, “The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love.”18 John of the Cross expresses the same mystery. “The soul that is united and transformed in God breathes God in God with the same divine breathing with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.”19 This is the revelation of stillness. When our life in God washes onto the shores of perception we see no image or shape, no holy pictures or statues, nothing for thinking mind’s comprehending grip. We know undeniably, like the back of our hand, the silent resounding of a great and flowing vastness that is the core of all. Words cannot express it (2 Cor 12:4). No tongue has sullied it. Such is the impenetrable silence in which we are immersed. Yet this silence cleanses the mind and unbinds the tongue. “I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul. Awake lyre and harp. I will awake the dawn” (Ps 56:7-8).
II. Meditation Supplies
III. Retreat Centers etc.
260 Lake Drive
Rhinebeck NY 12572
Many mindfulness teachers, nice catalogue, beautiful setting, decent food
Insight Meditation Center
1230 Pleasant Street
Barre MA 01005 www.dharma.org
[Founded by Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Saltzberg]
New York Insight Meditation Center
28 West 27th Street, 10th floor
NY, NY 1000
Insight Meditation Center of Washington
Founded and run by Tara Brach
www.imcw.org (posts her talks)
Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative
Listings of NYC courses, teachers, other resources and videos
IV. You Tube: Tara Brach, Jon Kabat Zinn, Saki Santorelli, Sharon Salzberg, Lama Surya Das, Pema Chodren….[the world!]
V. Downloadable Meditations
From UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center—mindfulness meditations in mp3 download format. Includes 5 minute breathing exercise, 12 minute Breath, Sound, Body Meditation, 19 minute complete meditation instructions, 3 minute body and sound meditation, 3 minute loving kindness mediation. http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
Free Mindfulness Project – growing collection of free to download mindfulness meditation practices
Tara Brach – guided meditations and talks about mindfulness practice
Kristen Neff – various meditations on cultivating self compassion
Christopher Germer – various guided meditations in cultivating self-compassion
Gregory Kramer –Insight Dialogue, taking mindfulness to interpersonal communication
VI. Mindfulness Apps
Includes timer, background scenery, sounds.
Andy Puddicombe, meditation teacher
C. Insight Timer
Also doubles as mindfulness guide. Well known teachers like Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein
E. Dharma Seed Tape Library
Bauer-Wu, Susan. Leaves Fall Gently: Living Fully with Serious and Life-Limiting Illness Through Mindfulness, compassion and Connectedness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2011
Boorstein, Sylvia. It’s Easier Than You Think. San Francisco: Harper, 1995
Brach, Tara. Radical Acceptance. NY: Bantam Dell, 2003
Brach, Tara. True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. NY: Bantam Dell, 2012
Brantley, Jeffrey. Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and compassion Can Free You from Anxiety, Fear and Panic. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2007
Chodron, Pema. Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Boston: Shambhala, 2012
Chodron, Pema. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness. Boston: Shambhala, 1991
Fishman, Barbara. Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2002
Germer, Christopher, The Mindful Path to Self Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. New York, Guilford Press, 2009
Goldstein, Joseph and Kornfield, Jack. Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. Boston: Shambhala, 1987
Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2011
Hamilton, Mina. Serenity to Go. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2001
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living, New York: Delacorte Press, 1990
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go There You Are. New York: Hyperion, 1994
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through MIndfulness. New York: Hyperion, 2005
Kaiser-Greenland, S. The Mindful Child. New York: Free Press, 2009
Kornfield, Jack. A Path With Heart. New York: Bantam, 1994
Kornfield, Jack. After the Ecstasy the Laundry. New York: Bantam Books, 2000
Kornfield, Jack: Meditation for Beginners. Boulder: Sounds True, 2008
Levey, Joel and Levey, Michelle. The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 1987
Levine, Stephen. Guided Meditations, Explorations and Healings. New York: Anchor Books, 1991
Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Uncertainty Behind. NY: Harper Collins, 2011
Nepo, Mark. The Book of Awakening. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2000
Rosenbaum, Elana. Being Well (Even When You’re Sick): Mindfulness Practices for People with Cancer and Other Serious Illnesses. Boston: Shambala, 2012
Santorelli, Saki. Heal Thy Self. New York: Bell Tower, 1999.
Siegel, Ronald. The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010.
Simmons, Philip, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. New York: Bantam, 2002
Stahl, Bob and Goldstein, Elisha. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2010
Thich Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon, 1976.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace is Every Step. New York: Bantam, 1991
Thich Nhat Hanh. Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001
Tolle, Eckart. The Power of Now. Novato, CA: New World Library. 1999
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., & Kabat-Zinn, J. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press, 2007
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Sleepers Awake! A Lenten series
February 18, 25,
March 3, 10, 17
St. George's Church
In-person and online
Rev. Drs. Jim Jones & Kathleen Bishop,
Spiritual awakening is a term often used to describe a new appreciation for our innate connection to the divine. It can also refer to a state of being that is alert, vigilant and mindful vs. the dormancy of “auto-pilot.”
In this 5-week series we will teach the basics of mindfulness meditation for those just beginning or for those who wish to bring fresh eyes and ears to the familiar rhythms of Lent and Easter through contemplative practice. Each week will build on the last to offer a step-by-step method for establishing a meditation practice, even for those who say, “I can’t meditate.”
Midway through the series we will offer a Lenten Quiet Day as an opportunity to put the teachings into practice. Throughout the course, participants will be encouraged to embrace the Lenten season as a time to ‘go deep” into contemplative prayer using the tools of mindful awareness we will learn and share together.
We hope you will consider joining us!