• October 15, 2019

    Let us say that your dominant characteristic, your ‘default program’, is fear. You are frequently fearful that strange and terrible things could arise from ordinary events. You are continually on the alert for possible difficulties, now and into the future.

    Your way of dealing with this fact is to try to ‘manage’ the fear, which means to reduce it in some way, perhaps by rationalizing it, noting its unreasonableness, breathing it away or to avoiding it through distractions. Fear is the enemy.

    But perhaps fear is your most useful asset. Fear makes you alert to what is happening around you, it summons energy and encourages active inquiry into what you are experiencing. Could fear be your steering wheel, helping you to navigate your terrain? But for this to be true, you must have enough separation from fear to give you the space to work with it. You cannot do this if you are the fear; you can do it if fear is your companion. Impartial observation of self could lead you in this direction.

    Every impulse, every perception, every sensation and every thought presents input, possible leverage in the ongoing battle to know and stay inside my experience, living it, using it.

    In a thousand times a thousand ways, each of us is looking for ways to ‘improve’ ourselves. I think I know what I need to be a better or more successful person. Seemingly the last thing I want is to deal with myself as I am. But I am the only path out of myself and into a wider universe. I can’t begin with some imaginary self-construction. Better to make my ‘flaws’ my companions.

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.
    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
    Be grateful for whatever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    — Jellaludin Rumi,

    translation by Coleman Barks

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  • January 28, 2017

    I have read that the higher forms of prayer lead to contemplation. My question is how prayer differs from contemplation.

    Do these words really mean anything to you? If they are just terms that you want to define, you will never understand them.

    Prayer and contemplation really refer to the same thing. They converge. They may begin with what appears to be a different view, in a different place, but they come together as they must because they refer to the same capacities that we have as humans, those same few capacities that we are able to exercise.

    To pray is to ask. I have things that I want. Very quickly, I learn the limitations of asking other people. I may therefore inwardly ask God or the Universe, someone or something I have heard or read about who is reportedly more powerful and more charitable than other humans. At first, I probably only ask for what I think will be pleasing to me or to others I have a connection to. But perhaps it may occur to me to consider, who am I asking? Over time, this may become a serious question.

    A serious question, one that I can ponder, always contains its own answer. Such a question gives rise to looking. As Rumi says: “The looking is a trace of what we are looking for.”

    Is someone really there to hear my prayer? Perhaps I may begin to wish for a relationship with this mysterious someone. This possible relationship may become more important to me than the satisfaction of my wants. Can I find in my inner experience those thoughts, sensations and feelings that inform me of this one that I seek? Can I find in myself the evidence of the other? By its effect on me, can the other be known? The qualities I adopt in order to bring me closer…do they not reflect the qualities of the one I seek?

    This is the secret of real prayer. I discover that the qualities of the one I seek are reflected in me. What I can know of Him is His trace in me. “Know Thyself” was the advice inscribed on the wall at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. More exactly, as Ibn Arabi says: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.”

    To contemplate is to hold. I have some experiences that are precious to me. I wish to enter these experiences fully, to contemplate them to the exclusion of all else. Can this be done? I find that I must learn how to relinquish the thoughts and sensations that are not the ones I wish for. I also find that perception and attention must become subtle enough to discern and hold the essential qualities of the experience I seek to immerse myself in. I discover that the sensations of my experience have a feeling behind them that I can access. In contemplation I reflect that feeling. Then I know it.

    Both prayer and contemplation relinquish the ordinary self I know in order to share in something greater. Both are made possible by the law of reflection.

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  • November 1, 2016

    You have said that the fourth way is not just another system of self-development, that it is a way of preparing for real service. What service? And service to what or whom?

    This is an important question but not an easy one to answer. One difficulty is that service cannot be defined as a particular type of action, much as we would like it to be. It would be so much easier if we just had a bunch of rules to follow. Real service is known by its quality.

    The usual idea of service is to ‘help other people’. Some might say they want to serve the work, or their religion, or perhaps their favourite deity. To me, these aims are likely to prove very premature. Do you have the integrity to take them on? Do you have the relationship which is implied? It can’t be just an idea, a concept you have adopted for yourself. To be a servant implies intimacy and an understanding of what is required of you. Good servants are not self-appointed, they are chosen on the basis of merit.

    Service is not a way to compensate for your own emptiness. Service is to offer what you have.

    In my view, the first step taken in real service is that you remember. Remember what? The call is to remember yourself, who you really are, your being and not your personality. Can you learn to be who you were before time began, as the Sufis say?

    Your being is a gift; the Universe has granted to you a measure of its qualities. They have become hidden under a basket. Your experience of life, its impact on you, has disguised your inheritance and it must be found again. The first step in service is to uncover and honour your gifts. You must learn to serve your true nature.

    The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 makes this point. The one who hides the wealth he has been given and does not use it is exiled. The faithful servant is the one who has recognized and used the talents he has been granted. Rumi says that on Resurrection day, you will be asked: “Be plain and clear. I have given you such gifts. What did you do with them?”

    Your service is to be, and to give thanks for who you are. This, to me, is what the universe is asking of you. Having accepted who you are, you have something to give and you have the capacity to serve.

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  • September 10, 2016

    We gathered for zikr in the zikr chamber.

    I asked: Can you enter the present? This is a simple request but not an easy one to fulfill. Zikr is an encounter with Being. This encounter requires all that you have, your entire capacity for engagement. How to begin?

    Can you take back attention from all the places you have left it? Your house, your car, your job, your wallet, your children? One of the magical qualities of attention is that it is attractive to itself, it can call itself to itself.

    You begin with the attention that you have. Anchor this attention directly on the sensation of your physical posture. Let this bring you into the present. Now, inquire about where you have unconsciously left your attention and invite it back to you on the in-breath. Breathe it in. Attention and the sensation of breathing work very well together.

    This is a process that improves with practice. Do not try to use your thinking to force your attention to return to the center. Your thoughts are not immediate or powerful enough. Your thoughts are only fore-runners, searching out the places, things and events where attention is being held. Allow attention to do the work of bringing itself to itself; it is a pleasure for attention to collect itself, attend to itself. Allow attention to be independent of you, not ‘yours’.

    In time, you will find mother lodes of held attention. When your thought touches on them, you will experience an electrical sensation and then a strengthening of attention as it is freed, returns and collects. With no other effort, your body and mind will wake up. The chattering thinker stops. You may also begin to know the terrain of your sleeping life, where you act without being present.

    Rumi wrote:

    The gold of your intelligence
    is scattered over many clippings and bits
    of wanting. Bring them all together
    in one place. How else can I stamp it?*

    In zikr, I may perhaps be stamped by His likeness, the one He intended for me. Can I first present myself for this discovery?

    *From: Delicious Laughter by Coleman Barks, p121.

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  • April 30, 2016

    The Law of Karma tells us that certain behaviours are rewarded while others are punished. I would like to know how karma fits into the ideas of the work.

    Well, you must know by now my attitude towards trying to get one set of ideas to fit with another. But there is something useful in what you have said that we could explore together.

    The concept of karma is a great way to rationalize the value of ‘good’ behaviour, explain future events and impose order on the universe. As such it runs counter to the work.

    Karma is supposed to explain a fortunate rebirth or an unlucky one based on the karmic consequences of what you did in past lives. And in this life too, it is supposed to account for the truth of ‘what goes around comes around’ or the natural justice of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’.

    Does karma explain much of what actually happens in life? Pre-judging actions based on whether or not they are supposed to have good or bad karmic consequences is ridiculously simplistic. Do we not observe that good things happen to bad people and the other way around? Do we really think this injustice is somehow put right in a future life? Whose life?

    Do we know what actions deserve merit? Is anger always bad and generosity always good? Can the same moral judgments be applied equally to all beings everywhere? Is what is good for me also good for you? Similar-looking actions may be very different, depending on context and intention.

    Karma is clearly a mental construct intended to give us a comforting sense of justice. As such, karma supports sleep. It places exclusive importance on horizontal time…moving from the past to the future…at the expense of the present, the temporal dimension of being.

    Karma paints the picture of a very small and uninteresting universe that obeys our ideas of fairness and proper reward…a universe forced to conform to our image rather than a mysterious and magical world that is ours to explore.

    The work begins when judgment stops and observation begins.

    Rumi wrote that all of our tendencies and traits come from one Treasury. Whether love and generosity or envy and ire, all impulses arise from the same divine source, he says. We want to make rules when we should be concerned about conscience…the intimate, direct, immediate knowing of the correct action for me to take in the moment when it is possible for me to take it.

    Perhaps you remember the Sufi stories about Moses travelling with Khidr. Every action taken by Khidr is immediately judged by Moses who is then shown to have failed because he did not account for the inner intention behind each of Khidr’s actions. Moses relies on the law. Khidr relies on perception.

    Conscience consists of perceiving one’s own heart and what is acceptable to it, or not acceptable. To do what is not suitable stirs up inner turmoil which cuts me off from all that I value most. The consequence is immediately observable, not necessarily in the realm of ordinary life but certainly in the inner worlds of presence and feeling. We exclude ourselves from Paradise and it does not take a lifetime.

    Karma is, in my opinion, a gross distortion of a very great observation about the nature of reality that has definite work potential.

    What observation is that?

    The observation that things continue.  The original meaning of karma is ‘action’. Throughout the universe, an action once begun tends to continue. If you act out of anger, it is likely to happen again. If it does happen again, it becomes a virtual certainty to re-occur. Once you take an action, you are likely to repeat it. Do not take an action and this inaction is likely to repeat. This is not the law of cause and effect or the law of karma but rather the law of inertia. Do you see this law at work in your life? Can you observe the tendency to continue to do what you have always done, or not done? Observe this impartially. There is no need to judge it. Judgment is one of the traps that inertia uses to continue. Only slaves think they always get what they deserve.

    When you have seen karma in your life, without judgment, without explanation or rationalization, you will be ready for change. You will see that you are worthy of more. Conscience awakens when it is trusted and concepts of fairness are abandoned.

    Being is able to overthrow karma and begin again. Its guide is con-science…literally, ‘with knowing’…which enables me to feel my way into a relationship with the Treasury and its infinite riches. But do not be surprised to find that this is also a path of exquisite suffering. Conscience comes at a cost. As it awakens, all one’s past is laid bare. Fortunately, the path of conscience includes mercy and redemption.

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  • March 19, 2016

    Last week you defined the abstract as a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance. You also asked us to experience the abstract. I have not had any success at this. Can you give us a more practical example to work with?

    I ask you to clean up your work space here at the gallery. You do so. The space becomes more ordered. Perhaps it is not the way I would order it but I recognize that it now has order. Where does this come from? Why are we able to agree that order has increased, even if the specific configuration would be different if any one of us did the ordering? Can you experience this quality of order directly, without reference to a particular?

    Order is a manifestation of the abstract, an expression of an abstract quality. For most human beings of sound mind, it gives rise to a sensation of satisfaction. The impulse to order, or to be honest, or loving, begins in the unseen world—it is a priori as the philosophers once said. We are able to cognize these qualities because they already exist. Exist where? I would say that order exists within the capacity of perceiving. But perhaps more exactly, all the qualities of the abstract exist as the latent possibilities of empty space and they take form through the action of perceiving.

    This formulation seems to suggest that the world around us is an illusion, that what we experience is not real but just a function of our perception.

    Yes and no. What you experience is always real and it is always an illusion. The fish in the fish tank very likely does not know it is in a tank. The experience of the fish is the experience of the fish. But as the owner of the fish, standing outside the tank, you know something about the reality of the fish’s life that the fish does not know. You are able to see a larger context in which it is clear that the fish lives in an illusion. But the fish has real experience nonetheless–its life is not made less because you know its limitations. Moreover, the fish’s life has a specificity of experience that you, outside the tank, cannot really know.

    The universe is much greater than the universe I perceive. I know this by reasoning from the example of the fish tank. Can I learn to perceive more? Or more correctly, can I learn to limit my perceiving less? To me, the answer may be found in the experience of the abstract, the unlimited.

    Rumi refers to the abstract as the Sea, which he also calls the unlimited Treasury of the Unseen. Each of us is given a tray with samples from this Sea. These samples are what we are able to experience in this world but they are only a small portion of what is to be found in unlimited measure in the Treasury. The samples are extraordinarily beautiful but they are limited. Some of us long for the Treasury. As Rumi says, “The longer one stays upon the Sea, the colder one’s heart grows for the tray.”

    The items on the tray do not become less beautiful. They are simply no longer sufficient. Attachment to the specific is lessened by attraction to the Source. That is the power of the abstract.

    Related Posts:

    The Abstract – Mar 14, 2016

    Perception – Sept 5, 2015

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