“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”
Many years ago while living in San Francisco I found a dusty little book in Dog Eared Books, The Cloud of Unknowing. It is this wonderful, anonymous 14th century book that presented contemplative meditation as a teachable, spiritual process enabling the ordinary person to enter and receive a direct experience of union with God to me.
This form of meditation, more commonly known as ‘Centering Prayer’ (from a text by the brilliant Thomas Merton) can be traced from and through the earliest centuries of Christianity. The Centering Prayer centers one on God.
“Silence is God’s first language,” wrote the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross. And silence is the normal context in which contemplative prayer takes place. But there is silence and then there is silence. There is an outer silence, an outer stopping of the words and busyness, but there is also a much more challenging interior silence, where the inner talking stops as well.
“The purpose of prayer is the noughting of oneself and the all-ing of God.”
Most of us are familiar with this first kind of silence, although we don’t get enough of it in our spiritual life. It’s the kind of silence we normally practice in retreat times and quiet days. With a break from the usual hurly-burly of your life, you have time to draw inward and allow your mind to meander. You may pore over a scriptural verse and let your imagination and feelings carry you more deeply into it. Or you may simply put the books away and go for a walk in the woods, allowing the tranquility of the setting and the relative quieting of external pressures bring you more deeply in touch with yourself. You listen carefully to how you’re feeling, what you’re wishing. In this kind of work, the free association of your mind provides the key to the renewal, and silence furnishes the backdrop where this work can go on.
But there is another kind of silence as well, far less familiar to most students of spiritual growth. In this other kind of silence, the exercise is exactly the opposite. In silence, you encourage your mind to float where it will; in this other silence — or to use the generic description, meditation — a deliberate effort is made to restrain the wandering of the mind, either by slowing down the thought process itself or by developing a means of detaching oneself from it.
Intentional silence almost always feels like work. It doesn’t come naturally to most people, and there is in fact considerable resistance raised from the mind itself: “You mean I just sit there and make my mind a blank?” Then the inner talking begins in earnest, and you ask yourself, “How can this be prayer? How can God give me my imagination, reason, and feelings and then expect me not to use them?” “Will I go crazy?”
Perhaps the most powerful argument is the one from authority. Virtually every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is a non-negotiable. Period. You just have to do it. Whether it is the meditation of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the zikr of the Sufis, the devkut of mystical Judaism, or the contemplative prayer of the Christians, there is a universal avowal that this form of spiritual practice is essential to spiritual awakening. All major, worldwide religions, most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human being. And while it’s true that we don’t have pictures of Jesus teaching a meditation practice exactly — this can be read between the lines fairly easily on any number of occasions in the scriptures.
Like most of the great spiritual masters of our world, Jesus taught from the conviction that we human beings are victims of a tragic case of mistaken identity. The person I normally take myself to be — that busy, anxious little “I” so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues — is never even remotely the whole of who I AM, and to seek the fulfillment of my life at this level means to miss out on the bigger life. This is why, according to His teaching, the one who tries to keep his life will lose it, and the one who is willing to lose it will find the real thing. Beneath the surface there is a deeper and vastly more authentic Self, but its presence is usually veiled by the clamor of the ego with its insatiable needs and demands.
This confusion between ego self and I AM is the core illusion of the human condition, and penetrating this illusion is what awakening is all about.
“God hidden within me. I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.”
At the center of our being is a point of emptiness which is untouched by ego and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of light which belongs entirely to God. This little point of emptiness is the light of God burning in us. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of an inner sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely and it is the gateway to heaven. As we enter contemplative prayer, we draw near the wellspring from which our being flows.