Monday, May 24, 2010

The Body's Wisdom V

Today I would like to explore with you one these deeper meanings. We might think of it as one of the exercises of the cell, although I would encourage you, weather permitting, to go outside and find a quiet place to practice. To approach this exercise we need to understand that the mind has a way of taking out its excesses on the body, especially non-material stress such as the pressure of work or family, the jangling noise of a technological society, or its ever-increasing pace.

The body has its own normal music: the heart leads with its rhythm, the circulation of the blood carries its pulse, the body clock regulates patterns of waking and sleeping. There are other innate rhythms, such as walking, so beautifully described by the late Bruce Chatwin.

But stress disrupts these rhythms; the over-stressed mind manifests itself in physical twitches and jiggles; muscles taughten; hands twist and shake. If we can find a way to make the body relax, then the mind could reconnect with its wellspring of silence. The exercise I am going to describe can be done anywhere, in any context, and the beauty of it is that once you learn it, you can call on it in any situation. But don't expect to be able to do it in its entirety today, or for many days. On the other hand, if eventually you manage it only once and never do it again, it will still provide a resource on which you can draw for the rest of your life.

The goal is to sit upright, absolutely still and perfectly relaxed for thirty minutes, no twitching, no scratching, no looking at a watch.

This sort of physical stillness happens inadvertently as a consequence of one-pointed meditation; but in this exercise the mind is alert and receptive to the body without focusing on anything in particular. It is best to learn to do it in stages, gradually increasing the amount of time as your body learns to be still.

In the beginning, of course, you may feel phantom ants crawling up your leg, your scalp may suddenly itch to the point of tears, or perhaps you may imagine a tick is crawling up your spine. You may catch yourself jiggling your fingers or have a desperate need to crack your big toe. These manifestations are perfectly normal and the exercise is best approached as a wryly humorous game you are playing with yourself. If you absolutely must check for ants and ticks, or scratch the itch, or crack your big toe, then just compose yourself and begin again. But above all pay attention to the body as it composes itself, and opens the way to a conscious physical connection with our core silence.

I repeat: if you can learn to sit upright, absolutely still and utterly relaxed, for thirty minutes, even if you manage to do it only once, it will be a resource you can draw on whenever you feel stressed and notice that you are jiggling or twitching. When you become aware that you are expressing stress through your body, you can bring to mind the physical memory of what your body felt like at the end of the thirty minutes, and almost instantly relax back into the deep silence. In consequence your speech and thoughts will be enabled to reconnect with the flow from their inner wellspring.

Peace be with you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


A friend writes:

Our new bishop came back from the House of Bishops with all sorts of news - the one item that intrigued me most seemed to confuse almost every other person in the room - that they will be looking at the role of (and place in the church - and structure for?) "anchorites" and "solitaries."

And who are they going to consult about this?

On June 12 I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my solemn vows, which I made after exacting preparation. As far as we know I was the first publicly professed solitary (there were some privately professed before me) since the Reformation. The bishop who professed me, Paul Moore, was visitor to seven religious communities at the time. He made me go public, professing me as a solitary religious for the whole church because, he said, he wanted to show the world that there was a way to live the religious life without losing your mind.

The communities were enraged that someone escaped the net. At one point they proposed that there should be a "registry" of solitaries—why not ask us to wear a yellow star as well? Not one person from the religious communities on either side of the Pond (nor one bishop) ever approached me about what my preparation had been, how I understood the life, or anything about what I was doing, but the slander machine went into high gear, all the way to Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury. John Allen, then Presiding Bishop, was very supportive, as were the Canons of Christ Church where I was then living in Oxford, Rowan Williams (now my bishop) and others.

And it was the religious communities who subsequently wrote the absolutely dreadful legislation that dictates the life of solitaries in TEC, making them tame ciphers instead of being able to live the role of speaking truth to power set out by the desert fathers and mothers. This legislation practically guarantees failure.

The situation has become so dreadful that solitaries are now talking about professing other solitaries, bypassing the hierarchy, and it is quite possible that this may be the only way forward. Under present conditions, the solitary life is reduced to performance art—as is, sadly, much of the life of the church.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Body's Wisdom IV

The organic unity of the mind and body is beautifully expressed by the poet Jane Hirshfield in her lovely book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhytmns present at that poem's conception. We breath as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved at the poem's first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer's physical experience comes into us when we read her poem; if the poem is our own, it is our own past that reinhabits our bodies, at least in part. Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time."

Hirshfield's remarks have vast implications for the way we translate scripture and liturgical texts, a subject too complex to discuss today. But before we leave her work we should perhaps note what she says about concentration, as it reflects some of the nuance of the Hebrew word for glory, a key theme for Easter and what the New Testament may mean by a "glorified body."

She defines concentration as: "to increase in strength or density, as in concentrating a salt solution. The direction of movement here is in another dimension entirely, neither inward nor outward: it is our own state of being that alters. Concentration of this kind relates to the way a poem's presentation of meaning opposes . . . the laziness and entropy of ordinary mind." We might rephrase this more positively as the resurrection of the mind through the body.

From this it is not difficult to see why moderate fasting was recommended by the ancients as an accompaniment to the work of silence. The body realizes that it isn't going to die if it cuts back on immediate gratification; it thereby encourages the mind to rouse itself to undertake what, for some people, is far more daunting: the choice to begin the work of silence. There is no hard and fast rule, however: for some the choice for silence is far easier to make than limiting the intake of food.

"Sit in your cell," said Abba Hierax, "and if you are hungry, eat, and if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved." There is no exaggeration in such advice; it is as useful now as it was in the fourth century. There is asceticism enough in staying in one place. To "sit in your cell" at one level simply means not going out unnecessarily, just as these days we try not to drive unnecessarily. At another level it means far more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Body's Wisdom III

These temptations are always with us: to treat ekstasis, the disappearance of self-consciousness, as an end instead of an incidental; to use asceticism to show off, watch ourselves be so-called mystics (there was never a more useless word), gain ascendancy, create a brand; to find short cuts—there are none—in an attempt to avoid the patient effort required for the work of silence. Sloth is perennial: it is the tendency that wrecks religions, which appear to have a trajectory that leads inexorably to technologizing and reification to avoid the costly effort of practice.

As we already noted, the roots of asceticism are linked in part to the fear of death. The superficial mind is terrified of letting go of its self-consciousness; it regards its construct of "self" as the actual person, and its interpretations, what we call experience, as both objective and self-authenticating, attitudes which are, of course, absurd. Teenagers who are afflicted with hyper-self-consciousness are always being told, "be yourself;" in other words, turn your attention to the task at hand and don't worry about how you may appear to others. Only when self-consciousness does let go can the unfolding truth of the person emerge.
It sounds so simple, even banal, yet this truth is reflected in the passage from the New Testament that is the most fundamental to Christianity, Philippians 2:1-13: "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." We will hear about this "emptying" repeatedly during Lent and Holy Week: the essence of the message, which Sylvestris put in classical terms, is that humility—the mind's letting go—is divinity.

While the mind instinctively seeks to grasp, the body already knows that "less is more" in the sense that when it is neither too fat nor too thin, it will both feel and function better—and modern studies have shown that eating less leads to greater longevity. Take the example of the famous Anthony of Egypt, the most renowned hermit of all time: in an age when the average life expectancy was under 30 years of age, he lived to be 105. He sequestered himself for twenty years. When his would-be disciples finally tore down the wall of his refuge, Anthony emerged, in the words of his biographer, Athanasius, "as though from some sanctuary, a[n. . .] initiate, mystery-taught and God inspired. . . . When they saw him, they were amazed to see that his body had kept its same condition, neither fat from lack of physical exercise, nor emaciated from fasting. . . but was just as they had known him before his withdrawal. [Harmless, Desert Christians, p. 64]

It is through the body's wisdom of moderation that we might arrive at a modern understanding of the formidable-sounding word "asceticism." It can be understood as a way the body teaches the mind not to be afraid, showing it by example that letting-go, far from being death-dealing, is life-enhancing.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Body's Wisdom II

Let's begin by listening to a remarkable writer from the 12th century, a contemporary of Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. His name is Bernard Sylvestris, Bernard of the Forest, a Breton and probably a Celt. In an age when the extreme physical asceticism of his namesake, Bernard of Clairvaux, was intensely admired, Bernard Sylvestris made this extraordinary statement: "Let the spirit complain of the flesh no more; it is the prison which makes [us] free. I tell you, this flesh is the condition of [our] immortality. For in mastering it does the mortal become immortal, and humanity pass to the proud gods."

In our day we might substitute the word "listening" for "mastering," and his references to the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome are alien to us. But his statement, in our age as well as his, is no less than revolutionary. He puts his finger into the wound that has haunted human beings from the beginning to this day: the fear of mortality; the feeling of being hampered or weighed down by a body that is born "between urine and feces," as the melancholy Freud put it; a body that needs food, clothing and shelter; that shits and craps and copulates, stinks in decay, and finally disappears into the star-stuff from which it came by way of worm guts, digestive bacteria, and chemical breakdown.

Sylvestris parodies Isaiah 29:16 by creating a dialogue between the pre-existent soul and the clay; the fastidious soul expresses horror at the fragile vessel into which it is about to be born, only to receive the outraged clay's retort that to criticize the clay is to criticize the Maker of the clay. It is perhaps unsurprising that people who seek so-called purity of mind are revolted by aspects of the body and seek to distance themselves from it. But in fact the purest mind is dependent on these physical traits.

What may be confusing to the contemporary reader is that in this translation Helen Waddell uses the word "flesh," which in the New Testament means "appetite" or "desire" rather than body. But the word is well chosen for this passage of Sylvestris, because in his little hymn of praise he is referring to both. He is pointing towards the reality of the integrated body and intellect—a word that in the Middle Ages includes soul and spirit as well as mind—and the reciprocal influence of one on the other.

He uses the word "prison" ironically, as a poet might say that the sonnet form is a prison that sets her creativity free. At a deeper level, Sylvestris may also be drawing attention to the confusion often made between feeling and function mentioned earlier, which confusion is possibly the source of the extreme dualism sometimes found in Christianity, not limited to Augustine of Hippo and his successors.

Some of this confusion is caused by attempting to name what seemed to happen; for example, mistakenly applying the phrase "out of body experience" to those moments when we are so absorbed in something we are doing or thinking that our observing I/eye disappears, and we are left wondering where the time went. While it would be a futile exercise to try to untangle descriptions that range from near-death experiences to supposed witches' flights, I would like to point out that in the so-called out of body experiences the observing I/eye is still present and interpreting—and we need to note here that all experience is interpretation—whereas in the suspension of self-consciousness, the observing I/eye has disappeared and we can interpret only from its residual effects. In addition, the "perfect attention" that enables self-forgetfulness means that the mind-body integration is functioning optimally, whereas reports of "out of body" experiences involving paranormal phenomena are often tied to some form of trance or coma.

In both cases, of course, the mind is still functioning through the body; otherwise the person would be dead, beyond resuscitation. The point I am trying to make here is that the recognition—always in retrospect—that this suspension of self-consciousness has occurred, or perhaps, better put, the memory of the threshold, just before or after, may seem to feel, or be interpreted to mean that the body has been left behind. It is also possible that the writer is simply using an extreme metaphor to emphasize that something momentous has occurred out of sight. These metaphorical flights seem often to have led to interpretations that are literal instead of literary, which in turn have created an excuse, often competitive, for extreme behavior.