Sampling Divine Emptiness

At 4 a.m. a couple days back I walked with the dog to the far edge of the field where the maple trees are lately surrendering their luminous papyrine leaves. A breeze followed me, sometimes going ahead, sometimes just keeping pace. The dog was far away in the bracken, splashing through the shallows of the old fire pond; one or two stars were dimly visible between low-hanging rain clouds. The farther I go in darkness, the slower I walk, as if what calls me is truly elusive, as if we could ever arrive anywhere other than here.

And where field meets forest, the one easing into the other in a literal way, in a natural way – where lately I perceive who is my home and how – I stood and listened to the sound of the leaves falling. The faint snap as they break from the parent limb, the whisper as they drift downward through blackness, the hush as they settle into frosty grass. So deep was my peace that when a solitary goose cried out overhead –  perhaps startled by the dog into an early pre-dawn flight – I startled myself, dropped to my haunches, and remembered again the old familiar story of loss and separation.

*

So it has come to this then: attention given without expectation of recompense which yields awareness that only truth is true, in which awareness one realizes at last there is only that from which one cannot be – and so never was – separate.

The search for God ends not with lightening bolts and swinging gold gates, angelic choirs humming glory alleluia, but with leaves falling one by one in the New England night, the dog coming back to wait patiently for me to remember we’re supposed to be walking, and the sure sense that though you are not here, you are here, thus testifying through transcendent presence that Love decries all containers, including me, including us, and including even the slow-spiraling maple leaves, the last of which landed on my shoulder and stayed there longer than one might have thought.

*

Lesson 188 of A Course in Miracles urges us not to wait on Heaven, and gently but firmly reminds us that who searches for the Light of Christ obscures the Light of Christ. Call what is holy what you will – the word is not the thing – but you cannot seek that which you already are.

Enlightenment is but a recognition, not a change at all . . . [The light] shines in you because it lights your home, and leads you back to where it came from and you are at home (W-pI.188.1:4, 8).

We are apt to confuse the metaphor by over-investing in it: to think that “home” is another place and “you” another, a more authentic self. But Heaven is neither a location nor the future perfection of external circumstances. Rather, it is a present condition presently unrecognized. And those who seek it, by their seeking obscure it, as those who surrender such seeking by virtue of their “defeat” discover there never was any conflict, never was any enemy and never was a single thing to gain. Heaven is.

Nor is there a separate self in any meaningful way: there is only an idea of that self, which is to say a concatenation of ideals and memories and stories and goals, all of which are simply mental flotsam, psychical (of or relating to the mind) residue cast by a thought system whose very structure denies God (what is) and then denies that it denies God, forever entangling us in what can seem like hopelessly dense webs (which webs are the self, are the ego).

But a structure of thought – however old, however established, however apparently privileged – has no more staying power than those lovely maple leaves in autumn. Before the slightest of slight breezes they are bound to fall away, as thought too will disappear, like writing your name with a finger on the lake’s surface. When we stop attending to thought as if it were holiness itself – now what does it want? Now what is it saying – then its prattle fades and our attention returns to the stable simple clarity of what is.

. . . let your thoughts fly to the peace within. They know the way. For honest thoughts, untainted by the dream of worldly things outside yourself, become the holy messengers of God Himself (W-pI.188.6:4-6).

See the fact clearly then: God is here, now, and here now you have the means by which to recognize God. No learning or training or suffering is required. Moreover, this fact – this truth which is the cornerstone of the peace that surpasses understanding – never changes: it is true when we feel happy and centered in the bosom of Jesus and it is true when we feel sad and confused and abandoned by the Buddha. Feelings don’t enter into it. Religion and spirituality and psychology don’t enter into it. A Course in Miracles doesn’t enter into it. Truth is true: and we know it, though whether we are ready to admit it – and live accordingly – remains an open question.

*

When I walk back through the field I stay close to the forest, pausing by the crabapple tree to sniff its fruit, stopping here and there in hopes that the turkeys might start their low chatter in whatever trees they’ve taken to roost. In the distance, a rooster begins its throaty holler, and father away yet, an eighteen-wheeler lays on the jake brakes where route 112 begins its long descent into Christian Hollow.

To put away “the dream of worldly things” is simply to allow them to be what they are, without the constant effort of identification, evaluation and application. The rooster is perfect in the way the long-hauler is perfect in the way reruns of Thirty Rock are perfect and Emily Dickinson, too. Nothing is that isn’t God. The self – which is simply a way of thinking that is not helpful because it obscures rather than reveals reality – needs to be gently set aside in order that we might perceive – at last and again – the perfection that naturally inheres in Creation.

How do we do this? We choose a path and follow it until we learn the folly of following paths and so stop wandering, so stop searching, so stop expecting, and simply give attention to what is right here, right now. Leaves falling, cakes baking, mail arriving, herons rising. William Blake said (here paraphrased) that a fool who perseveres in his folly will become wise. And Emily Dickinson – heir to Blake and the lamp unto my stumbling oafish feet – knew that only attentiveness freely given could finally restore our awareness of Heaven.

That Grace – Myself – might not obtain –
Confer opon my flower –
Refracted but a Countenance –
For I – inhabit her –

We stand beneath falling leaves – we fall with them in love – we inhabit them in love – and accordingly – for a moment – we sample the divine emptiness in which there is neither leaf nor self nor darkness but only Grace itself . . . How sweet the fall is then! How lovely the New England night tending slowly towards the dawn! And how grateful I am in the darkness crowded and all with love . . .

*

As always, the dog leads the way home. My pants are soaked past the knee, my feet chilly in wet socks and wetter boots. I am thinking of hot coffee: I am thinking of you in your nest of warm blankets.

Yet in the front yard I pause and look a last time everywhere: the stars are gone, the tendril clouds illuminated by the strange light that so briefly precedes dawn: neither red nor gold but closer to blue, a mysterious blue that is not a color so much as a condition, the way Heaven is a present state presently unrecognized. Yes – that. I am saying that we go where we can go, we give attention to what falls there. We fall, too. And then we are home: then it is light.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Annie October 1, 2014, 10:07 am

    “Love decries all containers, including me, including us, and including even the slow-spiraling maple leaves, the last of which landed on my shoulder and stayed there longer than one might have thought.”

    I sense always a deep gratitude that accompanies you in these early morning walks…it reaches out in every direction. How perfect that the maple leaf returned the blessing. I love that the stillness deepened and lasted longer then even you thought it would.

    • Sean Reagan October 1, 2014, 12:20 pm

      Thank you Annie for that close and thoughtful read – I had not thought of the maple leaf that way, yet it was precisely that. I am glad some sense of those walks come through. They are staples of my experience. They have been for so long but seem to deepen as I go. Nor I am alone when I’m on them! In ways that are both mysterious but also clear and simple, we go together, all of us.

      Love,
      Sean

  • Cheryl October 2, 2014, 8:36 am

    Something about the way you have formed this piece, Sean, how you have shaped it out of the present, allows in me this felt sense of the immediacy of God. This attention to form — to see the form, to become the form, to go beyond the form —

    “We stand beneath falling leaves – we fall with them in love – we inhabit them in love – and accordingly – for a moment – we sample the divine emptiness in which there is neither leaf nor self nor darkness but only Grace itself .”

    — helps me divine (how wonderful that word as verb) how we need a path until we don’t because they all wind back on themselves eventually, and while we are there — in that mind space — it is only this insistence on “me” and this persistent resistance toward letting it go, to continue filtering everything through it, that keeps us seeking in circles.

    Like everyone, I have had glimpses of this grace — the joyful habitation of a moment of pure Love — and your writing calls those to mind. And that is helpful beyond the words written here, far past what my words can say.

    About a year ago, I came upon the book “My Bright Abyss” by Christian Wiman, better known, I believe, for his poetry. I was drawn to the book by its title and by a sample of the writing, his literary voice caught me, the way he wove words together. But I wasn’t ready to read it; I put it down.

    I picked it up the other day and found it felt familiar. Something about his writing reminds me of yours. He quotes so many poets in the book — Emily Dickinson, of course, Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances,” Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook.”

    And says this about poetry — and our senses — and I would like to share it here:

    “We live in and by our senses, which are conditioned in and by our deaths. When some singular aspect of reality — an object, a person, even a duration of time — seems to acquire a life in excess of itself, what we feel is more complicated than joy. This is because that excess is at once some inexplicable ongoingness of the thing and the loss of the thing at it is, at once eternity and oblivion. And this is why poetry is so powerful, and so integral to any unified spiritual life: it preserves both aspects of spiritual experience, because to name is to praise and lose in one instant. So many ways of saying God.”

    Ah…So many ways of saying God
    For I — inhabit her –

    Love,
    Cheryl

    • Sean Reagan October 4, 2014, 9:42 am

      Thank you, Cheryl . . . Wiman’s passage is rich and I appreciate that you offer it up here . . . This question of form – or idea of form (or articulation of form) is both interesting and important, it is where learning is right now . . . The integrity of the image in the sense of imagine salvation . . . Stumbling as always the only grace I am given to manage (what does this mean?) . . . James Hillman said re: myth that we cannot touch myth without myth touching us . . . how lovely form when we perceive it only as the moment in which we touch and are touched by Creation . . .

  • Cheryl October 4, 2014, 12:04 pm

    Is it only grace if we perceive it as such?
    When touched by Creation, do we become infused with Creation?
    If so, must we be aware of what is happening for it to happen?

    We cannot cling to those moments of which we speak, but we can — and do — cling to their memory. And, I think that’s OK, until it isn’t — kind of like studying A Course in Miracles until it can no longer take us “further” or perhaps “closer” to the truth.

    I am mostly in or near this space these days where I am surprised by others who are surprised when they enter it. And, right now, I am grateful for that, knowing that there will come stretches of self-absorption and ego clamor that drown out this still small voice for lengths of time I cannot anticipate.

    • Sean Reagan October 4, 2014, 2:08 pm

      It seems to me – or feels to me – there is a movement in which perception of grace creates grace, particularly when we are talking about form: flower, thunderstorm, her shoulder. The movement – the flux – matters.

      I think touch in this instance – with respect to Creation, or Life – is synonymous with awareness of Life or Creation in which awareness one realizes they are not in any meaningful way separated from Life or Creation. In other words, we aren’t bereft until we touch and are touched by God and then – consequently – infuse, but rather remember that we are already infused.

      But I wonder if we are conflating form with container? Is it better to consider form an image? A signifier? So we can say the maple tree does not contain grace but can signify grace to the mind that remembers – is willing to remember – the wholeness that is creation?

      In part I want the specificity of the image to rescue me from the relative sterility of abstraction in which it becomes too possible to hide behind wordiness, the words erecting concepts, the concepts fusing into theories, the theories into -isms.

      It is raining. The yellow leaves of the Dogwood – the color of ripe lemons a few days past their prime – are falling one by one outside the window. When I give attention to these things as they are – without bringing thought into it in the sense of embellishment or explanation – there is a sort of peacefulness, and a hint – a suggestion – that the peacefulness is all there is. But to write it is to lose it (“we cannot cling . . . “).

      There is a sort of bafflement, a sense of something settling, there is a limitless envelope in which one travels lightly, from meaninglessness to meaninglessness, rippling.

  • Cheryl October 5, 2014, 8:42 am

    Perhaps grace is an ongoing “yes.”

    • Sean Reagan October 5, 2014, 8:54 am

      Or that which lies beyond yes and no altogether . . .

      Empty your mind of everything it thinks is true or false, or good or bad, of every thought it judges worthy, and all the ideas of which it is ashamed. Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught you, nor one belief you ever learned from anything (W-pI.189.7:2-4).

      Choiceless awareness . . .

  • Cheryl October 5, 2014, 10:54 am

    Bidding us to rest in the green grass of Rumi’s field … out beyond ideas 🙂

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