Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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There is nothing more terrifying than one’s own mind.

There is no greater source of comfort than God.

What is God but one’s own mind?

The first of the above claims is a paraphrase of a Buddhist dictum. The second is a fair representation of a belief found in numerous theistic religions. The third is not a claim but a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question, in which case it could be worded as the claim "God is nothing but one’s own mind." This third claim could be made not as a metaphysical statement but more as an epistemological observation: "The only thing one can know of God is that part of God that can squeeze into the confines of one’s own mind. All the rest is perforce beyond one’s ken." Treat the question in whatever way suits your temperament.

The point of quoting the two claims and the question is to state what is increasingly obvious to me: one’s own mind is both the source of one’s greatest fear and one’s greatest comfort. The mind is both that to which one can go for refuge and that from which one feels a need to be a refugee. My own mind conjures up everything that terrifies me, and then it releases me from that terror by conjuring up something to protect me from the terrifying images it has created. The cycle continues unpredictably, sometimes amusingly and sometimes annoyingly. (Amusement and irritation, of course, are also created by the very mind taht creates the things that are found amusing and irritating.)

Folly takes many forms. One form it takes is the belief that the mind is somehow under one’s control—that one can volunteer oneself out of fear by thinking more clearly, or by meditating or by praying. As one who does a fair amount of thinking (clearly, I hope, at least on good days) and meditating and even a little bit of praying, I have observed that nothing is predictable. Sometimes meditation "works" and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes prayer provides relief, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes thinking is lucid, and often it is not. No practice can be known in advance to be effective. When things go well (that is, when terror goes dormant for a while, or when peace and tranquility arise or when love floods the heart), then one believes that whatever one was doing before things went well must be the cause of things going well. Or, if one honors the common religious taboo against taking credit for things going well, one may regard going well as an instance of divine grace—a gift, a charism. If one is otherwise conditioned or indoctrinated, one calls it all a matter of blind luck.

Whatever one calls it, all but the most foolish agree that there is not much of a correlation between what one sets out to achieve and what actually comes one’s way.

At the moment, I am very much at peace with the fact (if it really is a fact) that I have very little control over how I perceive things at any given moment. Peace of mind is a creation of the mind no less than terror, envy, hope and solace are creations of the mind. They come. They go. I just watch.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 15:38

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Reading as prayer

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The Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200) recommended in an essay on reading that a young person should read widely to gain a broad education, but an older person should select a few works to read again and again. He recommended reading slowly and carefully, word by word, reflecting on each phrase. This practice of slow and careful reading is akin to what medieval Christians called lectio divina.

The Christian contemplative classic called The Cloud of Unknowing recommends inspirational reading. Anyone seeking an intimate familiarity with higher things (by whatever name one wishes to call them) does well to recall that few of us have within ourselves all the resources necessary to succeed fully in our pursuits. We benefit by being exposed to the wisdom of others. But blindly following others as authorities is no less a folly than ignoring the good that others have to offer. To make the wisdom of others fully our own, we must ingest it very slowly. Having taken a small helping, it is best to digest it well before taking more.

The kind of reading one does as part of one’s prayer and meditation practice is almost exactly the opposite of how one reads as a student. Students are usually assigned absurdly large numbers of pages to read. They are forced to skim rapidly, with the result that not much sinks in. Modern education breeds superficiality. It takes most students the better part of a lifetime to break all the poor reading habits they are forced to acquire on their way to getting a degree. It takes some effort to become properly uneducated so that, after getting a diploma, one can finally become properly educated.

The works I find myself reading again and again in my older years are The Cloud of Unknowing itself, the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the essays of Xunzi and Mengzi, the Suttanipāta, the Bodhicaryāvatāra and a selection of essays by William James, especially “The will to believe.” Recently I have come across some early Quaker writings that, if breath keeps pouring into my lungs, I am inclined to read over many times in the future.

The particular list of what is read is of interest mostly to myself. How it is read should be of much wider interest. Read slowly. Read with an open heart. Let the words work their way into the core of your being, and let them do there whatever they will do. The results are bound to be as surprising as they are wholesome.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 20:11

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René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy with the observation that he is aware of mistaken views he has held in the past.

It is now some years since I detected how many were the beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had constructed on this basis…

No doubt most of us have had the same experience and so have learned to doubt what we now believe on the grounds that we have been mistaken before. But there is also another experience, namely, that of discovering that what we once believed we still believe, but on looking back on our former holding of the belief, our grasp then seems tentative compared to our grasp now. We might feel like saying “Yes, I knew it then, but I really know it now.”

In the mid-1980s I attended an interfaith meditation workshop at which Buddhist and Christian contemplatives led participates through contemplative exercises of various kinds. A Christian contemplative nun named Sister Benedetta led participants through a meditative exercise based on the 14th century text of unknown authorship entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This was my first exposure to the text, and I immediately loved it.

The premise of The Cloud of Unknowing is that God is entirely unknown to us. God cannot be reached either through the intellect (by, for example, reasoning as Descartes did in his Meditations), or by imagination. God cannot be pictured, described, or understood; God cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. And yet there is in most people a yearning for some kind of perfection, a refuge to which one can turn to express gratitude for one’s joys and lamentations for one’s sorrows. In short, God is entirely hidden from the human seeker by a Cloud of Unknowing. That cloud can be penetrated, says the text, only by love. One cannot know God at all, but one can love that which is entirely unknown and unknowable.

Making contact with God through a love of the unknown is possible only for those who have no further pretense of knowing or understanding. In the language of the text, one must put everything behind what it calls a cloud of forgetting. One must forget, at least for the span of a period of meditation, all the indoctrination one has received, all the worldly concerns one has, all the aspirations one has cultivated, all the education one has acquired. With a mind utterly still and silent, one must simply wait. Often one waits in vain. Nothing shows up. Sometimes one’s waiting is rewarded with a feeling of love about which it is impossible to know for sure whether it has poured in from the outside or is flowing out from the depths of oneself.

The practice of the Cloud of Unknowing is deceptively simple. The mind is stilled by the repetition of a syllable. The anonymous author of the 14th century recommend a simple word like “love,” but other words will do just as well. Whenever one’s thoughts intrude into the silence, then one gently puts those thoughts behind the cloud of forgetting. One can imagine the cloud below oneself. One can imagine the intruding thought as a physical object that one holds out at arm’s length and simply lets go. On being let go, the thought drops through the cloud below and disappears from view.

Practicing the Cloud of Unknowing immediately seemed a good thing to do when I was first introduced to it. It still seems a good thing to do. The only thing that has changed over the years is a slow-burning but persistent conviction that the world as we have come to know it, and human civilization as we have learned to call it, are not likely to survive much longer. The way of living we have become accustomed to will surely perish eventually, if only because it is not sustainable. We are depleting almost all the resources that sustain life. Alongside the conviction that the world as we know it is on its last legs is a conviction that a better world could take the place of the world we know, but that this will happen only if we make a concerted effort to forget.

The Cloud of Unknowing recommends forgetting all worldly ambitions for material possessions and for praise and approval. It also recommends forgetting all the indoctrination we have received along the way. That is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Most important of all is forgetting all the stories we tell about ourselves, all the biographical details that the ego cranks out to give itself significance and to diminish the significance of others. It is important to forget our nationality, our ethnicity, our connections to other speakers of our mother tongue, our tragedies, our sufferings, our losses, our gains, our joys and our laughter. These things can be abandoned for the span of a meditation session that lasts as long as it takes a stick of incense to burn down. Can they be forgotten for longer? Can they be forgotten forever?

The mystical tradition of Christianity interprets the crucifixion of Christ as the model for the death of the ego, the taking up of permanent residence on the other side of the cloud of forgetting. The crucifixion of Christ can bring about the salvation of only those for whom it is an internal and essentially private and personal act of dissolving what we modern people call the ego. It is only when the crucifixion takes the form of shattering the foundation upon which the sins of pride, envy, greed, gluttony, anger and lust are built that anything like salvation takes place. If that crucifixion does not take place in billions of minds, the earth will soon enough be just another sphere of lifeless rock captured in the gravitational field of a slowing dying star.

Had you hoped for a brighter future? A land of milk and honey? Angels and trumpets and clouds of glory? Forget it.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, February 27, 2009 at 17:42

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