Birds, Coffee and Void: Last Thoughts

But all this is silliness.

I enjoy being outdoors in the morning listening to birds.

I enjoy the light of dawn: its shy secretive blue, its slow but steady reveal of the world.

I love coffee, even bad coffee.

No more than all this! And no less either.

No mysteries. No secrets.

Just this.

This in which the one who talks too much about “void” risks being spiritually obtuse.

This in which the one who speaks of “emptiness” and “stillness” with near-evangelical fervor . . .

. . . has forgotten something and thinks “you” have it.

This in which it is clear that nobody has forgotten anything.

This in which nothing is lost.

This in which this morning I didn’t go to the barn but stayed inside, without coffee, exhausted, laying on the couch, watching light bleed through drawn curtains due east. After hours of night given to reading and prayer, all with an intensity evoking Kapleau’s description of shikan-taza . . .

. . . shikan-taza is a heightened state of concentrated awareness wherein one is neither tense nor hurried, and certainly never slack. It is the mind of somebody facing death (The Three Pillars of Zen 56).

Which in turn recalls these two questions and their answer from A Course in Miracles:

What would you see without the fear of death? What would you feel and think if death held no attraction for you? Very simply, you would remember your Father. The Creator of life, the Source of everything that lives, the Father of the universe and of the universe of universes, and of everything that lies even beyond them would you remember (T-19.IV.D.1:1-4).

Lay there unmoving. Eyes open then shut. Bird song but different, not like in the barn. Muffled a little. Traffic also different, groaning on the downslope of Route Nine past the village cemetery. The neighbor’s lambs bawl; a rooster crows.

Kapleau – he is summarizing a lecture of Yasutani-Roshi – also says:

Compared with an unskilled swordsman a master uses his sword effortlessly. But this was not always the case, for there was a time when he had to strain himself to the utmost, owing to his imperfect technique, to preserve his life. It is no different with shikan-taza (The Three Pillars of Zen 57).

How tired I am! Yet how grateful.

I live in you –
not as darkness
but as a light in which
even darkness cannot hide.

I live in you as that
which you long
to give away.

I live in you
as love.

In time, the world awakens. The mail truck from Springfield arrives, the driver calling “good morning” to M., who from the loading dock answers – quieter, knowing who is still asleep on Main Street – “good morning.”

For it is morning. Before judgment – good, bad, this or that – it is morning. Light streams over the hills, mist rises off the pasture.

How happy I am. How grateful.

More than this quiet joy this morning is not possible; less is possible, to the precise extent I insist on prerogatives that do not come from the Holy One. The secret to salvation is that we do this unto our own self (T-18.VIII.10:1). Shall we take this literally then? See what happens if we do, at least?

You have no problems, though you think you have . . . Think not the limits you impose on what you see can limit God in any way (T-26.II.3:3, 5).

Yes, so long as there is a perception of lack, then there will be a perception of problems, and so long as there is a perception of problems, then others will appear to “fill” the lack or “solve” the problem or “assuage the pain” or “reinforce the pain . . . ”

All a dream. All  dust even now blowing away. Not even dust. Not even a dream.

Only this. Always only this.

It is not given us to fool God or argue with God or negotiate with God or even to deny God. Every image and idea and act which implies the contrary is not and never was real. We need only surrender to this simple fact, and then love and peace and joy will flow over us the way sunlight floods a landscape, allowing it to be seen by eyes that know how to see.

In you I speak
in you I hear.

Between silence
and what-silence-is-not,
I wait for you to join me.

Listening to Birds with Jesus in the Void

Less poetically. Less biographically.

As a matter of experience – lived experience prior to settling into this or that language or mode of expression (science, philosophy, advaita, historical et cetera et cetera et cetera) – what happens when you listen to the birds and to the silence in which their song appears?

As an exercise, a thing done with intention and curiosity, with devotion – what happens?

You hear birds. And the sound of them variegates and complexifies as you listen, becoming not just lovely but wonder-filled. How deeply hearing goes into the two-note Spring song of a chickadee! Dylan goes quiet, Chopin goes quiet, ego goes quiet . . .

And then, between notes, you hear the silence. The rich expanse of it seemingly endless and utterly open. Oh, maybe there are other sounds, too, at first – the river in the distance, the traffic at even greater distance. Maybe the neighbors, maybe a dog.

But all these sounds – without exception – stand aside their antithesis, silence.

You listen to the silence. You give attention to it. What happens? Isn’t it almost alive? Doesn’t it almost feel like something always about to give birth to sound? This sound then that sound? This melody then that? Isn’t silence intelligent and creative? Isn’t it alive?

As you go deeper into it, you begin to see that if there were not those sounds, then there would not be this silence. Therefore, silence is not the source of sound! Whatever the source of sound is, it is the source of silence, too. What a discovery!

In this way, you begin to sense how silence and sound are like positive and negative – charges, integers, images – which, when brought together, dissolve into . . .

What exactly?

Into emptiness. Stillness. Consciousness. God.

Though as soon as you name it, you are in retreat. And it’s okay to retreat – God is not at war with you. Emptiness doesn’t care whether you stay or go. Consciousness doesn’t mind what you do or leave undone.

But still. When you name it, you also bring forth all it isn’t.

You don’t have to do that anymore. You can; you don’t have to.

And see how in all of this – this wondrous encounter with Void, this penetration into the Sacred Heart of Christ, this union with God, all the holy secrets and mysteries unraveling at the Mind’s altar – there are still birds singing, and in between the song there are still these soft silences.

And there is still the one who – hearing them – loves them. Loves them. And the love streams, pours, flows – now grateful, now amazed, now studious, now amused . . .

Only this, of course. Always only this. But also – oh my Lord – this.

Coffee and Chores in the Void

In the morning I take my coffee to the barn and sit on a bale of hay. It is still dark though eastern hills bleed pale light. Mid-April but still cold enough to button the old flannel overshirt my father wore.

Pull the purple wool cap Chrisoula made down over my ears.

Sit shivering in the dark, sipping coffee, listening to birds sing.

Listening to birds sing, then listening to the silence between the songs of birds.

Shiver: coffee: bird song: silence.

And eventually – as faint beams of sunlight enter the barn through dusty windows, and caffeine sets the blood humming – getting around to wondering:

Does bird song break – does it fill – the silence?

Does silence support the bird song? Does it make the bird song possible?

And so on, in variation.

Coffee: bird song: silence: inquiry.

Yet the questions – because of their underlying reliance on the existence of cause-and-effect, and its underlying reliance on linearity, none of which we are allowed to take as Truth – go nowhere.

Go on and on going nowhere.

And yet.

Sunlight illumines banks of cloud laying still on the horizon: mallow and lilac, roseate accents, lavender folds. How fast one’s coffee cools, the mug chilling already-chilled fingers!

The bird song and the silence cancel each other, like one plus minus one leaving zero. There is neither bird song nor silence: there is only emptiness. Only stillness.

There is only this – this this – pouring itself continually from itself into itself: the nameless and formless endlessly creating what is nameless and formless endlessly creating.

So what? Who cares?

Really: who cares?

Finish the coffee, rise and stretch. Set the mug on a shelf near the WD-40, and get going on chores. Throw feed for the chickens and fill their waterers. Throw hay to the horses, water them under watchful eyes. Head indoors to slice apples for drying, get bread dough going, hang laundry, wash dishes. Write and teach. This and that.

And so on and so forth and so on.

How sweet to touch the hem of the Mother’s dress as she passes in the morning! How satisfying to care for the Father in His many forms asking for care. Thank Christ for coffee in mid-Spring, and mornings given to the birds.

Thank Christ for you, in whom and through whom all of this is given, over and over, in love.

On Awareness, Doubt, Socratic Dialogue, and Love

As human beings we are aware and we are aware that we are aware and this reflects a single unified awareness. Your awareness of a tree and your awareness of your awareness of a tree are the same awareness.

To some people this seems obvious. But I think it’s actually not. We have – as a consequence of our physical and cognitive structure – a sense that our “awareness of awareness” is actually a durable tangible self who happens to be looking at a tree. And we are very attached to that self, and our attachment is consequential. It begets a lot of distress and anxiety (and aggression) which, as A Course in Miracles suggests, need not be.

The suggestion here is that the tree and the self are similar phenomena appearing in the same awareness. That is, they are both just images in awareness and neither is more dynamic, valuable or complex than the other. That one feels more dynamic, valuable and complex is simply an aspect of appearing (sort of like how some stars appear brighter than others, or some ice cream flavors taste better than others).

“But wait!” you might say. “What about my past? My preferences? My desires and aversions? My hopes and goals? The tree doesn’t have them – I do.”

Actually, no. They, too, are appearances in awareness – albeit subtle appearances (sort of like noticing wind because of how the tree moves – wind itself is invisible). Describing goals, preferences, histories et cetera as our own – as if they are attached to a discrete self – is part of the confusion. It arises from – and reinforces – the underlying mistaken belief that there actually is a discrete self that can be threatened or rewarded, lose or win, live or die . . .

It’s a bit like how we cry when Bambi’s mother dies. We know that nothing actually happened. And yet, we are invested in the illusory narrative to the point that it evokes a powerful emotional response. I’m suggesting that Bambi isn’t the only narrative we’re falling for; we’re falling for the “me, myself and I” narrative, too.

“Okay,” you say. “But if I cut myself, you don’t bleed. If you eat some bread, my hunger doesn’t go away.”

While that argument feels dispositive, it’s actually not. Its premise assumes the point it aims to prove – that is, that you and I are separate beings having separate experiences. It’s a slightly subtler version of saying “water is wet because water is wet.”

Investigate the premise: if you are just an image appearing in awareness, and I am just an image appearing in awareness, then our various professions of experience are merely professions. They are merely appearances in awareness, which includes the sense that some are mine and some are yours. But if “me” and “you” are just images, then a compare-and-contrast exercise isn’t going to prove one is more “real” than the other.

For example, you wouldn’t compare a speech by Macbeth to a speech by Banquo in an effort to prove that one of the speakers wasn’t a character in a play. You wouldn’t compare the acts those characters take to suggest one is more real than the other. It’s the same with “you” and “me.” And you and me, too.

“Fine,” you say. “But you keep talking about ‘I’ and ‘you.’ Isn’t that hypocritical? If they’re not real or actual, why do you keep talking about them?”

Obviously language and communication appear, and obviously language and communication denote stuff. The word “tree” doesn’t just float in the ether – it directs us to a specific experience of a specific appearance. It’s relational, which is what makes it communicative.

But ask: how would dialogue function if I beat my chest and hopped around like an amped-up silverback gorilla? Or stood silently in place all day with my face turned to the sun, slowly rotating like a sunflower? What if I use semaphores? What if I invent a language, a la Tolkien?

I think the answer is that while meaning in those instances would shift – become more or less clear, more or less helpful, more or less intelligible – communication itself would still go on.

That, in turn, suggests that language, too – notwithstanding its complexity in signification – is an appearance. Of course I use language that reinforces the split in awareness that human beings experience. I appear as a human being. When “I” appear as a silverback gorilla or a sunflower, “I” do something else.

It’s all an appearance. Yes, some of it feels more personal and intimate – more sensuous – but so what? All that really shows it that language appears and sensuality appears and sometimes they coincide.

The suggestion I make is that we investigate this, and see what happens when we do, and in the interim just keep on keeping on. Do what is natural. Sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, laugh when you’re amused, dance when the music says dance. Be in dialogue with life, rather than lecturing it and insisting it conform to this or that expectation or opinion.

One of the things I often point out is that when we come to the insight that “it’s all awareness,” is that we go slowly with any conclusions we might draw from that. There is a sense that we’ve reached the summit of the mountain and our search is over, dissolved in the pure light of God/Source/Etc.

Well, maybe. But maybe not, too.

Mountain summits are not our home! They are part of what comes and goes – part of the experience that is never still but always shifting and shading. Each time I reach the top of Mount Ascutney, after refueling and giving a good hour or so to sitting quietly with the western view, I hike back down.

It’s not unlike when Jesus and his disciples meet Elijah and Moses at the top of a high mountain. The disciples want to set up tents and who could blame them? But Jesus does not cling to the peak experience. It passes. He descends from the summit and returns to the ordinary ongoing rhythm of living in the world.

I read that scriptural text as suggesting that summit experiences can be helpful and exhilarating but are not in and of themselves the end of seeking and uncertainty.

It is possible the insight that “it’s all awareness” is simply a clear seeing of the human experience of cognition and perception. That is, we have a particular structure and it brings forth a particular experience that appears dual but is actually non-dual. It appears singular but is actually shared, collective and inclusive.

On that view, the insight simply allows us to be happy in a serious, natural and sustainable way. Since “the other” is also our own self (or, better, is our self seeing itself another way), then patience, kindness, and inclusiveness naturally arise. We become creative and compassionate rather than competitive. We don’t wait on invitations to be helpful and we don’t get worked up about accepting help. Mutual aid and recognition abound. We become loving, or we become love itself, where “love” is understood as processual, flowing, relational. The rigid poles of subject/object, observer/observed dissolve because we understand them not as laws binding us to separation but as pointers to our fundamental unity.

However, I do not argue that this is absolutely the case! I merely point out that it’s as valid a possibility as positing “it’s all awareness” as tantamount to a radical spiritual awakening and enlightenment.

Nor do I suggest that those two possibilities are the only ones! Critical to my personal experience of spirituality – which is to say, of love – is an ongoing willingness to accept the possibility of other possibilities, including those I of which I am not now and may never be, aware.

In a sense, by not allowing ourselves to reach a conclusion, we sustain a kind of unknowing. We don’t ever reach the summit and set up tents; we hike and go on hiking – up and down, here and there, peak and valley, village and forest, desert and sea. I think of this approach to awareness and awareness-of-awareness as kin to Socrates’ insight that human beings cannot ever be wise, let alone “wisest of all.”

Here is how Hannah Arendt puts it in her essay “Philosophy and Politics.”

. . . only through knowing what appears to me — only to me, and therefore remaining forever related to my own concrete existence — can I ever understand truth. Absolute truth, which would be the same for all men and therefore unrelated, independent of each man’s existence, cannot exist for mortals.

Socrates insisted on epistemic humility – on doubt – but also on dialogue.

Arendt again:

Socrates therefore must always begin with questions; he cannot know beforehand what kind of dokei moi, of it-appears-to-me, the other possesses. He must make sure of the other’s position in the common world. Yet, just as nobody can know beforehand the other’s doxa (opinion), so nobody can know by himself and without further effort the inherent truth of his own opinion. Socrates wanted to bring out this truth which everyone potentially possesses. If we remain true to his own metaphor of maieutic, we may say: Socrates wanted to make the city more truthful by delivering each of the citizens of their truths.

“Maieutic” refers to the art and craft of midwifery. Socrates wasn’t trying to persuade anyone of his truth; rather, he was trying to help others give birth to their truth. As Arendt puts it, “the maieutic was a political activity, a give and take, fundamentally on a basis of strict equality, the fruits of which could not be measured by the result of arriving at this or that general truth.”

That is a beautiful and nontrivial point. We are apt to think of our seeking and pursuing nonduality in a spiritual context or frame, which makes it personal. Ascended masters appear to me and not you, Marianne Williamson is more spiritual than I am, Thomas Merton was closer to God than all of us, et cetera.

But the suggestion I make here – tracking Arendt’s insights – is that our seeking and pursuing nonduality is actually political, in the sense of bringing folks together in a consensual collective way.

That is, we are entering into dialogue – image unto image – in order to learn that we are images, and equal, and so learning together what our equality and togetherness mean.

On this view, the end of the self, as such, is actually the opening out of the self into Love, which is all-of-us, which does not exclude the inanimate or non-sentient. The self melts; the collective, too.

I hint here then at the possibility of a structure in or to awareness that is premised on love. And what I intend by that is to notice that meaning is inherent, and that it’s relational. Or perhaps, even simpler, just noticing that there is order – something rather than nothing, meaning instead of no meaning, order instead of chaos.

Humberto Maturana noticed this – and reflected on it more deeply and helpfully (often collaboratively with women like Ximena Davila and Pille Bunnell, which matters) than any other writer/thinker to whom I’ve given attention. He and Bunnell wrote:

Love expands intelligence, and enables creativity. Love returns autonomy, and as it returns autonomy, it returns responsibility and the experience of freedom.

In his work, Maturana frequently returns to the following definition of love: “Love is the domain of those relational behaviours through which another (a person, being, or thing) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.”

The suggestion I am making is that the relations implied here – the mutuality, the acceptance, the arising – is the order that grounds awareness, and thus becomes the fundament, the ground of our being.

That is, we are loving animals who are aware of love and of loving and of ourselves as love and loving and that clarity about this is what brings peace, happiness, cooperation, consensus, compassion and all of that. Indeed, upon seeing this clearly, nothing but “peace, happiness, cooperation, consensus, compassion and all of that” can arise because that is what we are. We love; we are loving.

I started this essay building a fairly traditional case for “there is only awareness.” I do that because a lot of folks whose work I admire have that insight as their goal, or reach that insight and have as their goal transmitting it to others. I appreciate that.

Yet I think that insight is not an end but a beginning, and that we can still reflect and observe and re-reflect in wake of – in the light of – this insight. And, further, I suggest that what we learn is that we love and are loving and in that sense Love is all there is.

Nor do I relinquish the Socratic impulse – to go on doubting and in our doubt to be in dialogue with the other. So I am always in a state of remembering, recovering, recognizing, relinquishing, relishing, reveling . . . There is no end to it. Nor can I say where the beginning is, or was.

It is like I stand on that line where the sea is always meeting shore. Each wave dulls then obliterates the messages we leave, topples then erases each castle we build. Yet the sand remains and the desire to communicate and construct remains, and so we – like the sea and the shore – go on, forever together as one.

Is Now a Moment in Time?

In his essay “Is Now A Moment In Time?” Michel Bitbol talks about “. . . the pure referring ‘now’ from which everything is referred to.”

“Everything” is this case refers to time as well. That is, in “the pure referring ‘now'” there is no time; time is also referred to, a signification arising in a world signified by the pure referring now.

And yet . . .

These are volunteers – squash plants we did not seed or intend to grow – but nevertheless grow in a manure pile aging in order to be added to the garden. Volunteers have nothing to do with time! But they make me happy, reminding me life goes on without my supervision.

Perhaps a simpler way to think about time this is to differentiate between chronological time (it takes a year to learn to speak passable Greek) and psychological time (I’m too old to learn a new language).

Chronological time is not complicated because it is helpful. It correlates with the seasons, the phases of the moon, menses, childhood and adulthood, birth and death. It’s just a way of organizing a living that is already loosely naturally organized.

But we internalize it and thus become slaves to the clock and the calendar. They were made to be helpful but we have become their servants. Jim Harrison called clocks and calendars “cosmic business machines.” Suddenly we are in a race against failure, death, closing time, Friday . . . None of which exist – nor do we – in Bitbol’s pure referring now.

So an interesting exercise is simply to give attention to this “pure referring now” and see what happens. Can we reach that place in which a) there are no distinctions and – yet, somehow – b) distinctions arise?

Can we find the non-differentiated stillness which generates all differences?

It’s kind of a trick question because if we say “yes,” then we’ve made a distinction – we’ve distinguished the “non-differentiated stillness” from what it is not. We mean well, but we’re kidding ourselves.

On the other hand, if we say “no” then we’re sad and disappointed because we are very much attached to the idea that folks who perceive the “non-differentiated stillness” are a bit more spiritual, a bit more beloved of God, Jesus and the Buddha, et cetera.

But we aren’t talking about a competition here. We are talking about a way of seeing or thinking – or living, really – in which a natural alignment, a natural coherence, of structural and ontological experience appears, dissolving separation, fragmentation, dissociation and sacrifice.

What remains is the gift of Love, which is the Sun around which the gift of attention joyfully revolves.

Humans exist only as a potential to receive,
When this takes place the world is transformed.
For only then, you, the Holy Child of God,
have It, Love, to give.
For sure this is possible.
It is not difficult. We already are “That.”
We need only to put the fear of undoing away.
We will together go into the web of words
with the Light of Love and awaken our Self.

(Tara Singh Remembering God in Everything You See 61)

Tara Singh’s emphasis on reception matters because it shifts the focus from doing – from activity, intention, goals and outcomes – to simply sitting quietly, giving attention, and trusting that God will provide and that Christ will be the light in which we remember that “Nothing real can be threatened” and “Nothing unreal exists.”

Of course, it is hard to be receptive this way. It is hard to sit quietly, just giving attention to whatever arises, just receiving – as a gift – that which arises. We are so hellbent on striving, fixing, improving, amending, doing . . .

Yet it is in this stillness – this deliberate slowing-down, breath by breath, this letting-go-by-letting-be – that we at last catch glimpses of impersonal, unconditional Love. We begin to perceive in a clear gentle and sustainable way that dissociation and separation are not possible, save as a passing form of experiencing our own self.

Ramana Maharshi was asked once why mental bondage – thought patterns, egoic conditioning and habits – was so persistent. His answer was clear and practical.

The nature of bondage is merely the rising, ruinous thought ‘I am different from the reality’. Since one surely cannot remain separate from the reality, reject that thought whenever it rises.

And I would soften that the tiniest bit to say simply let that thought of separation arise and do what it does until it just floats away, which it will certainly do. It’s not a problem (not even when we make it one).

If we do not cling to the concept that we are dissociated from Love – separated from God – different than what is real – then eventually those concepts will lose their stranglehold in and on our mind. They will drift away like rain clouds and what remains will be radiant and luminous, bringing happiness to all, without condition or qualification.

What a blessing to know there is no “other.” We are all one, for Life is one. The power of oneness is in every man, woman and child. It is superior to the power of institutions. Within each one there is the vision of wholeness – a light (Tara Singh The Joseph Plan of A Course in Miracles for the Lean Years 70)

The pure referring now is the stillness from which all life emerges and into which it all falls back. Life is one. God, as such, is not akin t0 patriarch watching over his lambs but more like the generative fertile Earth mothering us all. The referring now is not a time, nor even an experience, but that from which time and experience are differentiated by virtue of reference.

If this sounds complex or mysterious, well yes. It can sound that way. And appear that way. It can feel that way. And yet attention – brought lovingly, gently and generously – to our experience of living, of being the instance of life that we are, will intimate a whole in which there is neither birth nor death, nor beginning nor end, and we will know that we are blessed.