Saturday, July 30, 2011

Exploring Silence IV

The mind's work with silence and its effects involves the entire person, including the body. It is a normal part of everyday functioning and is for the most part hidden. It is common to human beings and recognizable across cultures and religions. It is only when the process is observed and interpreted that it acquires philosophical, psychological and/or religious nuances. The model we are concerned with is available to anyone who cares to observe their own mind. It does not require an education. As Gerson remarks, 'Even women and the illiterate can reach the highest contemplation.'[1]

While self-knowledge in the ancient and medieval worlds includes a moral inventory, it is even more a matter of learning both how to understand the process and to receive the gifts of the mind working in silence. (Cloud, ch. 67; 66/31-34) It is only by accessing the silence and allowing it to do its work that human beings can come to the 'kynde knowyng' that Langland's Will so greatly desired, and which Holy Church so signally failed to teach him.[2] It is only by learning to drawing one's life from this kynde knowyng that the outward forms of living change, not the other way around (Cloud ch. 61; 63/11-13).[3] This process cannot be taught in the way that chemistry can be taught. The teacher of the work of silence can only point the way; each person has to experiment—or 'prove' it, as the Cloud-author would say, for him or her self.[4]

For this reason it is possible to say that each of the authors who writes about this dynamic could have done so without reference to any of the others (Cloud ch. 70; 70/9-15). In that case the texts would have been far different to what we know—but we need to be aware that there is not always a textual trail to be followed, nor is the knowledge contained in them necessarily inherited. But in fact these authors do not write in a vacuum, not only because they are educated people writing in a context of community and communion, but also because they are keen to cite any authority that will give their work credibility. To those unfamiliar with it, the work seems incredible; it is counter-intuitive, and it is threatening to certain kinds of institutional leadership (I Cor. 1:23). In addition, the nature of the work makes it very difficult to find language to express this dynamic. This poverty of language cuts several ways: it means that writers do borrow from one another, but it also means that similar phrases occur in authors who may have no connection at all. It also gives rise to extravagant allegory and metaphor.

For readers of these texts who are unaware of the work of silence, language that describes the details of the process may be misinterpreted as expressing philosophy or metaphysics. Conversely, a description of what a particular phase of the process feels like may be mistaken for a theological, doctrinal or spiritual declaration.


[1] Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, 'The Emergence of the Individual' in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 624. [Given the medieval attitude towards women, it is tempting to translate ydiota as idiots; etiamsi sit muliercula vel ydiota seems deceptively and patronisingly translated by Duby and Braunstein as 'the humblest of believers, the simplest of spirits' ('. . . lorsqe le fidèle le plus humble, l'esprit le plus simple').] The entire sentence reads: Ex quo alteram concludimus differentiam quoniam theologia mystica licet sit suprema atque perfectissima notita, ipsa tamen potest hubri a quolibet fideli, etiam si sit muliercula vel idiota. De Mystica Theologia IV.30, Gerson, Oeuvres complètes, Introduction, texte et notes par Mgr [Palémon] Glorieux (Paris, 1960), vol. 3, p. 276.

[2] 'Langland's "Kynde Knowyng" and the Quest for Christ' by Britton J. Harwood, Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 242-255. As Julian says in chapter 69, 'And the beholding of this while we arn here, it is full plesant to God and full gret spede to us. And the soule that thus beholdyth it makith it like to him that is beholdyn, and onyth it in reset and peas be his grace'. By the time of Piers Plowman, the institution had nearly lost the ability to teach 'kynde knowing', if indeed it remembered what it was.

[3] In his little-known treatise for nuns, De perfectione vitae ad sorores Bonaventure he says, if you do not understand your worth as one who shares God's divinity, then your relationships with yourself and the world around you will be troubled. He states the difference between the positive effects of the self-respect gained through contemplation and the destructive ones of narcissistic self-esteem, although of course this is not the language that he uses. In this treatise for women his idea of capax dei, or capacity for God, is not that we are mere passive receptacles, but includes an active dynamic of—paradoxically—our being drawn by God's outpouring.

[4] Buddhist meditation is taught this way to this day. So are modern 'secular' versions as this one from The Guardian: However, for the Cloud-author and similar writers, meditation is only a first and minor step in a process that shifts the centre of consciousness from the conceptual mind to the wellspring of silence.


Blogger changeinthewind said...

"..meditation is only a first and minor step in a process that shifts the centre of consciousness.."

What follows? Thank you.

8:51 pm, August 07, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Meditation can be abused as well as used. One can, for example, meditate in order to become a more efficient killer.

Meditation has to have a context and be subject to intent. The modern distinction between religion and spirituality is very dangerous—not that believing the propositions of a particular sect is important, but it is vital to know what you believe, what your ethics are, and your purpose for meditating, that is, your intent.

Meditation can introduce you to silence, but it will not root you in silence, or shift your centre to the deep mind. Meditation can introduce you to the possibilities that silence offers for trans-figuration, but these effects are only incidental.

Most people go no farther than meditation because they are more interested in justifying who they think they are, rather than becoming who they really are. The reason for this is that they are unwilling to pay the price, unwilling to let go of their ideas of themselves, to begin with; unwilling to wait in the dark in complete openness; unwilling to turn away from noise and static in their minds whenever they notice it in order to to reach into the dark; unwilling to seek solitude and silence; unwilling to radically simplify their lives.

These are not conditions of entry in to the silence; rather, the silence itself demands them. Realising that the silence is costly, and not willing to risk the effects what they do not know, most people sell their souls for a mess of pottage and miss their inheritance, which is the kingdom of heaven, i.e., a life animated by contemplation.

9:20 pm, August 07, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Wow! A thoughtful and provocative response. Thank you.

"These are not conditions of entry in to the silence; rather, the silence itself demands them."

I feel willing to do all of this.

What you say is necessary to a contemplative life I now do or try to do.

There could be improvement but I live a deliberately simple life.

"..unwilling to wait in the dark in complete openness.."

Perhaps "just living" can be the dark I now feel? What once felt purposeful and beautiful is now a feeling of stuck ness in what seems to be just a meditation practice.

Are you suggesting that the stuck ness reaction was/is an ego defense; a not yet willing at the core to pay the true cost?

Or is it, this too shall pass.

7:33 pm, August 08, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Perhaps the most important thing is not to worry what it "feels" like, nor to worry about the outcome, or the price, or anything else. Let go expectations. Let go ideas of what it 'should be like'. Let go evaluations. Just be.

Equally important is that you turn to 'reach into the dark' (or listen every more deeply in the silence, or whatever metaphor works for you to get you beyond what often becomes a meditation-generated capsule) outside of meditation, in your ordinary life.

When you catch yourself allowing the noise and static in your head to be your entertainment, deliberately turn away from it towards the silence and make some sort of interior metaphorical (entirely metaphorical) intention/gesture (again, whatever metaphor works) of opening to the silence, of 'choosing' the silence instead of the noise, of reaching into the dark in love.

It's utterly simple; there is nothing to 'do' except choose to have this intention when you catch yourself in noise of some sort [it will also help you survive environmental noise you can't do anything about, and calm strong emotion]. You only need to do it once in a lingering, leisurely sort of way and then forget about it and go on with ordinary life in as much simple silence as possible—forgetting even this. (You will recognize the paradox of intention).

Then the next time you catch yourself being entertained (or abused) by noise (internal especially, but also external) repeat the exercise. Gradually you are using your intention to influence your deep mind to change/shift your energy centre from self-consciousness to the deep mind. Eventually you will wake up one morning , or quietly realize over a cup of tea in the afternoon, that you no longer have to choose do this exercise, that the silence is now doing the animating.

Don't make too much of this. it's simplicity itself. It's a bit like trying to look at the star cluster called the Pleiades: if you look at them directly they tend to fade; if you look at them out of the corner of your eye, obliquely, they shine clearly and brightly. Try to avoid looking at what's going on out of your sight (you can't see it anyway and it's none of your business!); just make the simple choice/intention or 'reaching' into the silence in faith—a faith that is deep enough to relax and forget you have done it.

8:29 pm, August 08, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Part 2

When you find yourself in noise, choose silence; that's it. As the shift takes place, the degree of simplicity of your external living conditions will find its own level.

No two people are alike in this, and simple pleasures are important—think 'Babette's Feast'—in the sense of, for example, delectable, very fresh, food now and again, food that is carefully, thoughtfully, beautifully prepared in love and eaten with great attention and love; or some other simple pleasure—are greatly to be desired. For Fr Zossima in the Brothers Karamatsov, it was jam in his tea. It can be something very simple: a flower, a starry night. These moments of deep gratitude, beholding, appreciation, etc. enhance the silence and help you deepen into it.

It's important to continue your regular meditation until the day you realize that silence has taken over, and meditation actually seems like a form of noise, or withers. All the same, you will probably have to go back to it from time to time as a kind of refresher, because it's rare that the shift is permanently seated; we do slip. It's not a fault. It just happens; we're humans, not machines, and we live in particularly tumultuous and uncertain times. Paradoxically the silence makes one both more sensitive—acutely so—and simultaneously more unshakeable.

It is also important always to read very good things, a little at a time (like eating the good food above—quality, not quantity); to keep your eyes from harmful images—you will become more impressionable to such things and purging bad images, if you let them in, is a chore; to keep your ears from harmful words as far as that is possible, or violence in any form, ditto. Again, these things will follow automatically as you choose/intend/reach into the silence. If bad things are said to you or happen to you allow the silence to absorb them and your feelings with them.

Simple, simple. 'Unless you become as a little child. . ." This is what that passage means, in part. Bless you, and bless you for the courage to share these questions with others.

PS I have used neutral language in describing this for the most part, because religious/theological language has been ruined. But you can make the translation, I'm sure.

8:30 pm, August 08, 2011  

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