Over the last few months I have written little. If I am honest, I should have to say that this has not been because I have had nothing to say, so much as that I had run out of words.
Over the long years of my Christian contemplative practice – from the age of thirty, maybe – I was able to draw on the deep well of Christian iconography, theology, the Bible itself, for words and images to tell myself about the journey I was on; words which I could readily share. Since then it has been more difficult, much more difficult. I am not a Buddhist. Despite my great respect for Buddhism’s 2,500 years of spiritual and psychological research and development, and my love for many Buddhist writers classical and contemporary, their words do not on the whole “do it for me” in the way that the Christian tradition so often has.
Nonetheless, despite a couple of abortive attempts to return to formal, organised religion, and despite nearly a year of trying to live out a kind of “churchless Christianity”, I could not with any intellectual honesty understand myself as Christian any longer. The central myths were just that, and their power, their numinosity, had gone with that realisation. The faith that is indistinguishable from community, from the gathered people (ekklēsia) that is the church, simply no longer functioned as a descriptor for where I found myself.
Increasingly, despite (or because of) my subsequent unwavering practice of broadly vipassana-based meditation, I felt lost, my heart clogged with the dust of broken words, dry and hollowed out. I had no idea who I was any more.
It came to the point where all I could do was cry out (to whom?) in the cold hours before dawn, that I was lost, so lost. No maps I knew showed this desert place, wherever it was, and besides, my compass no longer worked. In this condition, tired out, I fell asleep.
When I awoke, light poured through the window across the bed. I was light myself, empty and crystal clear. No, I was not. I, was not; except that there was a gossamer memory that knew itself as me, someone who had, effectively, died in the night. “All there is is oneness. The unknown. No-thing appearing as it appears. It is already whole. It is already complete. That which seems to be missing – wholeness – is not lost.” (Andreas Müller)
That phrase, no thing, was all that was left of language that morning. (It is a phrase that has been with me, resonant and entirely resistant to explanation, for many years.) I cannot possibly describe the freedom, the irresistible joy that was left where I had been.
Since, the joy and the freedom have not dimmed. The gossamer memory of me still seems to function perfectly well as a way to get around in the phenomenal world, but it is no longer convincing. It is as transparent as glass. I so love all that is, even if it is no thing. Especially as it is no thing.
What happened? I don’t know. Of course I don’t. What happened is not the kind of thing “I” could know. This seems like a clever answer, a smarty-pants way to get one up on my readers, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I can say, though, that it is not “something” that “I” achieved. Müller again: “What remains is indescribable. It is indescribable simply because there is no one left who can describe it. There is no one left who experiences oneness (which, by the way, would then not be oneness anymore) and could possibly know how that is. Yes, there is no one left who knows how it is. That is freedom.”
So is this the fruit of meditation? The culmination of some kind of a process? Obviously not. And yet. Could it have happened without a couple of years’ steady practice of meditation, following nearly forty of Christian contemplation? Yes, obviously. People like Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi each had their illumination following moments of great stress or despair, not unlike, according to their own descriptions, the desert place where I had found myself that night. They do not seem to have spent long years meditating in preparation. Ramana hadn’t had time, anyway; he was only sixteen.
But perhaps, for me at least, practice made a place where it was possible. It just happened, that much is clear. For me, it seems to have happened while I was dreamlessly asleep. But maybe practice functioned like cultivating a field. Cultivation doesn’t make anything grow – you need seeds, and water, and warmth for that – but it does make a place where seeds can safely germinate. I don’t know. Something had to get me out there into that desert – something had to shear away the props that upheld the idea of a me who could get somewhere, even into a desert.
There is certainly nothing I could have done to force such a thing to happen (and from the point of view of “I” that would have felt not unlike some sort of suicide) and it doesn’t happen to or for “me” anyhow. It happens. What is beyond is no thing at all.
[First published on An Open Ground]