Settling in the Heart

The Beauty We Love, is one of my favorite places to visit on the web. There you will find a remarkable collection of passages and poetry of astonishing depth and insight. Earlier today I came across the following quotation from by Saint Theophan the Recluse, (1815–1894) a monk and ordained saint of the Russian Orthodox Church:

You must descend from
your head into your heart.
At present your thoughts of God
are in your head. And God Himself is,
as it were, outside you, and
so your prayer and other spiritual
exercises
remain exterior. Whilst you are still
in your head,
thoughts will not easily be subdued but
will always be whirling about, like snow
in winter or
clouds of mosquitoes in summer.

Not only is this a clear picture of our conscious intellect in operation, it also indicates a possibility of perceiving the world in an entirely new way. Usually my center of gravity is in my head, and often I am not even aware that I have a body below it. How does one move from a fragmented and self-centered point of view to a more encompassing and organic intelligence that is responsive to the subtle movements of feeling? In other words, how do you get your center of gravity down lower in the body?

I think there are two different minds in each of us–the conscious intellect on one hand, and the nervous system as a whole on the other. Both are required and necessary, but I have a tendency to trust the former over the latter. That is, I think I know everything already. But how could this slow, linear travelling and deliberating intellect be more intelligent than a brain that can regulate thousands of bodily processes in a flash of a firefly. I say “flash” because it operates with a totally different conception of time, which is an idea you find in Gurdjieff’s writing about the three centers (mind, body and feeling) and their different speeds and the energies by which they function.

It isn’t that one mind is better than the other. There just seems to be a mind and capital “M” mind. If I see that I am living just in my head (with a little “m”), which is to say, I am fragmented, it becomes a question of how to include both minds in a movement towards unity–of how to be in-between them so to speak. To borrow from Zen, I certainly can’t seek the ox when I’m sitting on top of it.

This kind of training or discipline is left entirely untaught in our schools and in popular culture as my friend Walt pointed out in his comment to this post. The observation of the existence of two minds is not new, it is to be found in many of the world’s wisdom traditions. The Zen Traditions is rife with them. For example, you find the intriguing word munen, in Japanese Zen which means intelligent action without thinking.  And another example that comes to mind are the words of a Chinese Zen Master: “If you want to see into it, see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed.”

Turning to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in the question put forth: What is Mind, Tilopa (988–1069), tantric practitioner and accomplished teacher offered these six precepts: “No thought, no reflection, no analysis, / No cultivation, no intention, / Let it settle of itself.” That doesn’t allow much room to just “think” about it, does it?

Synchronously, I went to the library earlier this evening to pick up Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous, also known as Unknown Friend. I was encouraged to place a hold on it a few weeks ago from reading successive posts of insightful commentary about the book at One Cosmos, another favorite place of mine to visit on the web.  On page 8 of Meditations on the Tarot, I came across a key passage from Patanjali’s classic work on Yoga that describes a different practice of what is usually thought of as concentration:

Yoga citta vritti nirodha (Yoga is the suppression of the oscillations of the mental substance, Yoga Sutras 1.2)

The author, Unknown Friend then describes the importance of concentration as a practice. But he distinguishes clearly between the automatic movements of thought processes and imagination from the art of a non-identified or unattached concentration. (He uses the word disinterested). One of the main differences, he describes, is that this form of concentration is “without effort” and it appears in conditions of calm and silence and only after renouncingthe incessant hamster wheel of the intellect and the imagination. When I read that, I recognized that he was saying essentially the same thing as our other friend, Saint Theophan the Recluse. Mainly, how do we get out of the head? And specifically, how do we concentrate without effort? Unknown Friends offers this analogy:

“Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake, and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied in what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines, that he calculates and that he makes plans with regard to each step he makes on the rope?”

Of course the answer is no, otherwise he would come tumbling down immediately. Therefore, the tightrope walker must somehow suppress the slow intellect and imagination and allow the intelligence of the rhythmic or nervous system to get safely across to the other side.

After many years devoted to spiritual search and practice, William Segal, the author, painter, and student of Gurdjieff and D.T. Suzuki wrote the following description about what is required in the practice of dropping the head. He explains:

There is the ability to be engaged very actively in life, but at the same time to be non-attached. One does what one does with full enthusiasm: I love to drink coffee, to paint, to dig a garden or chop wood. But can I be wholly in the act but not attached to it? And at the same time, be in relation to this “other,” this stillness, which is in me, in you, in everything. This requires discipline, which one reaches through various methods. It’s not only meditation, and it certainly isn’t through scholastic studies or through prayer of the ordinary kind, although prayer can be a cessation of thought, a giving up, a letting go and being here totally. Now, perhaps, to be that way does require a great preliminary doing; I’m not sure about that. As an old man who has been through a lot of that sort of practice, I don’t think it’s really necessary. I don’t see the sense of it now. I think if I were in the hands of a master today, he would simply tell me, “Look, mister, just be still. Watch your breathing. Get your center of gravity down here.” And then this appears. This is in you, it’s always here. All one has to do is open to it. So I don’t see the sense of all these schools and all these disciplines. I do see the sense, because one is unable, one is not capable as one is, in ordinary life.

Lastly, and somewhat related, I think, a few days ago my friend Lee posted a well written introduction and commentary on The Gurdjieff Movements, which I have been lucky enough to participate in. Encouraged by his words I went looking for a recording of Jeanne de Salzmann directing a Movements class that I had come across on the web a few years ago. I think the film explores some of the ideas I have expressed here far better than I could possibly convey in words. In my view, The Movements are a form of sacred dance, not that I know much about that subject, but I feel that they are like a kind of observatory where there is a possibility to have a more objective view of oneself. They are also a very direct way of approaching spiritual ideas and moving from mere knowledge into hopefully, an under-standing.

Well after spending this evening writing a few pages of words, I try to remember to come back to this body sitting here. I realize that ironically, I have been living in the castles of ideas again, just a small part of a much larger view, but I remember and renew an effort to try not to run from one thought to the next, as Theophane the Recluse advises, but to give each one time to settle in the heart.

PHOTOGRAPH: Aerialist Philippe Petite opens dedication of St.John The Divine. Credit: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times, 1982

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony

“Settle down in your room at a moment when you have nothing else to do. Say “I am now with myself,” and just sit with yourself. After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored. This teaches us one very useful thing. It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored! Why is this so? It is so because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life. If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction… We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from the outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, (Darton, Lomgman & Todd Ltd., 1970) p. 68

The Art of Meditation

I have been spending a lot of time with Sir Richard Temple’s beautiful book The Art of Meditation, which I received last week in the mail. I highly recommended it. Sir Richard Temple lives in London, England, and owns The Temple Gallery, one of the world’s great religious icon galleries. Recently, he has introduced his magnificent collection of Buddha statues into the space. He also decided to gather his collection of photographs that were originally commissioned for an exhibition catalog, and publish The Art of Meditation instead, along with When You Hear a Dog Bark, an intimate personal account of Buddhist meditation in Thailand.

In the poignant introduction to the book, Temple writes:

There is in all of us, even if deeply buried, a longing for eternal truth….Art, at least traditional sacred art, with its supreme technical mastery and craftsmanship, with the grandeur of its emotional language, its inner stillness and its suggestion of profound meaning can be a signpost for this search. Sacred art of the great ancient traditions speaks to what is finest in the human spirit and can turn us in the direction of order, compassion and wisdom.

The photographs in the book are stunning, and his personal journal about meditation is a joy to read. It is sincere, and often humorous and insightful.

Here is a remarkable passage from Temple’s journal that resonated with my own search:

Meditating is seeing into oneself, and it is not the role of the seer to intervene; he does not descend to the level where what is seen takes place. The seer is a higher level in oneself, the lower remains as it is. It is simply there to be seen objectively, as one would stand in front of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights. One may be intrigued, horrified, fascinated, amused and so on, but one is an onlooker to these events and not a participant.

A great spiritual truth can be understood from this if the principle of impartial, objective seeing is tightly grasped. The seer is an appearance within oneself of an intelligence that does not belong to the ordinary world but to a higher one.

The practice is called “the art of arts and the science of sciences.” With sufficient endeavor it can be brought into one’s everyday life. I have met people, admittedly very few, who carry out their ordinary affairs in the world while maintaining this interior regards upon themselves.

For more information about the book or to view the collection online, you can visit The Temple Gallery here.

The Temple Gallery, London

When Angels are Born, A Review

Where Angels Are BornWhen Angels Are Born
by Ron Starbuck
Saint Julian Press

I awake most mornings at 5 a.m., shuffle around the house in half sleep, make coffee, and then I sit quietly to watch the arrival of another new day through the window. On most of these mornings, just as the sun reaches up to the sky, I turn on my laptop computer and my attention is immediately taken by the white hot flash of an LCD screen.

This morning was different. After a few moments sitting quietly looking out the window at the light changing outside over the silhouetted black buildings as the coffee machine gurgled away in the kitchen, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down Ron Starbuck’s latest volume of poetry, When Angels Are Born. I don’t know why I did that instead of turning on my computer, but I am grateful. It is as though a part of me needed a different kind of nourishment. Something softer and more contemplative, a kind of wish to make a connection to something that speaks to a deeper part of myself–a “secret self that we all have,” as the writer Katherine Mansfield once said.

It surprises me now to realize how little an effort is required to make one’s morning seem holy and significant. We just need to be attentive and to listen much like Ron Starbuck says in the introduction: “to open ourselves to the mystery of life.” Reading his poetry is to accept a gentle invitation from a friend to go walking in the fields of the spirit. You enter his words like a song, deeper and deeper still into “the mystery of life” and all of its “infinite possibilities,” much like the lightning bugs he describes in the poem “Youth & Rebellion:”

who guide us home
and guide us still.

When Angels Are Born is an honest and heartfelt invocation, a calling out to the sacred that is so desperately needed today “in a world that undervalues such an intimacy of spirit.” It is also a spiritual journey where we are continually aroused from our sleep and brought to think and to feel our common human situation. We are encouraged gently to “pay attention” and to “welcome the embrace | of heaven found in a single moment, between breathing in and out.” Ron Starbuck’s psalms, or sacred songs and prose easily guides us onto the path of many contemplative traditions and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton. And in the light of those traditions, we are asked to travel further than the known, to “empty out our small separate selves and to recognize the truth of who we really are–”to become a sacrament of seeing.”

There are no clear cut answers offered to the great metaphysical questions but rather a deepening of those questions. He speaks directly into the heart of each of us, as though drawing from an ancient source, giving us voice to our deepest and most powerful intuitions and longings. The question of what does it really mean to be alive is echoed throughout the book and his penetrating verse assures us that the world is filled with the Absolute and that we need only to listen and discover for ourselves that we are not separate–that we are all part of something much larger. Even difficult spiritual concepts like compassion, emptiness, and rebirth are distilled down to their essence and made accessible in a language easily understood by the heart. In the poem “Death,” for example, Ron Starbuck says:

Look at someone you love today
For one minute,
As if you saw them
for the first time.

When Angels Are Born is a gift. It is a wonderful book that can be read again and again. It serves to remind us to ask what is being given to us in each moment. Ron Starbuck’s poetry encourages us to try to see the world through fresh eyes, and to open ourselves up to gratitude for this life, or as he so eloquently puts it: “to give birth to our own angels in the world every day.”

Spiritual Diplomacy

Here is an illuminating interview with James George, former high commissioner to India and former ambassador to Iran. The Dalai Lama calls him “my old friend.” Chogyam Trungpa referred to him as “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.”

He has been a gentle teacher and a friend who has inspired many to engage in a spiritual practice in the midst of life–one that can bridge the external world with the inner world.