February Conversation 2019: Week 1
Robin Thomson | Monday, 4th February, 2019

Monday 4 February

The first morning of the February conversation began with a sense of being invited by what is real in us, to what is real in us, and to a broad field of possibility. And a sense that when we set an intention for a real action, there is a response from the unseen. Perhaps, further, the nature of this invitation is a call or exhortation to strength of heart, or courage. That we find courage in ourselves, that a strong heart be in our quest.

Reporting back on the last few months at Chisholme, one participant mentioned a concern with suicide and mental illness, and the fact that these seem to be on the increase in general terms. So what antidote can there be to despair? Again the response was courage: the nourishing and eliciting of the courage that is inherent in each of us as a quality of the single being. While it remains the case that most or all of us must undergo a dark night of our own soul, the quality (or faculty) of courage is what would make this possible to bear. Surely the education here can offer and establish en-courage-ment, the nourishing of the heart by its own reality, so that the quality of courage is known and can be called upon when needed.

We reported on the last few months at Chisholme, with a quiet winter period since the forty-day course that ended in November, a genuinely joyful Christmas and New Year, and the anticipation of this conversation as the threshold for what is to come in 2019.

As for the conversation, it has no predetermined theme or ‘space’. Just as we ourselves are complex, both private individuals with our unique situations and yet also participants in a shared or global situation (be that Chisholme or the world in general), so also our conversation is bound to be interdimensional. Perhaps when we ask for ‘news’, it is more fruitful to give news from ourselves, from where we find ourselves in the moment, without censorship or conditioning. That is where being is most truthfully found.

Above all, there are heartfelt requests that this conversation be not ‘the same as before’ but fresh, honest and unedited. Only with courage, and by bypassing our assumptions about ourselves and one another, and about what is acceptable in conversation, can an authentic voice be spoken and heard and replied to. And we need help for this, to hold it, and to demand that help. Here the raw material for conversation, and a refining of it, is to be found.

Tuesday 5 February

Being ourselves – that is, being authentic to what is real in us – seems easier when we are with strangers than when we are with people we know (or think we know). Where there is a sense of familiarity, we are more likely to slip into ‘familiar’ states and avoid what is real, and may avoid real conversation.

So how can we stay present with one another? We have talked in the past about an intention to see each other in a fresh light; like many resolutions, however, this has proved impossible as a long-term aim. On the other hand, what does seem to make us present is a situation of real encounter – which is a kind of boundary or frontier state, one that places us in both the interior and the exterior of ourselves and makes a mirror of the other person.

Essential education likewise places us at a door between two worlds – be these the interior and exterior of our own experience, or self and the world, or oneness and manyness, or worldliness and retreat. Again it is a question of encounter between them, and it seems vital that the school offer structures that build this condition in its students. For example, it is healthy for students to come from the world to spend time at the school, and then to return to the world. For those of us living here long-term, it is important that we do not stay here indefinitely but also move in and out of the so-called outside world.

This situation does not call for ‘spiritual’ language; it is a reality that speaks of itself. We have long been hobbled by what seems like an obsolete lexis, rooted in some of the textual material we study and unable to break free of it. Kathleen Raine spoke of the need for a vernacular or common language when talking of the ineffable. Yet this cannot be simply a modernising of old wording. The vernacular is perhaps that which seems to be emerging at the moment, a new presence, something not yet fully formed. Perhaps even, the vernacular is the people of the present time. When we are fully ourselves and place ourselves at the door, the frontier, then what happens is that the vernacular is spoken – and perhaps heard.

We were reminded that this does not require us to ‘do’ anything, for all our compulsions to act. All we have to do is to allow the essential love that is inherent in us to flow and be known. Beyond this is nothing to do, save what the real educator itself informs us.

Wednesday 6 February

The conversation focused on what it is that attracts people to Chisholme and what it needs to offer in order to attract. Yesterday we spoke of encounter. But what it all begins with is love – the love in the human heart that is present in all of us, whether it is ‘fluent’ and known or not – which senses its object here and is attracted. Chisholme, because of its purpose, is a highly attractive place.

Yet this situation is not static. The current conditions are insecure. An analogy might be to be walking around inside a burning house, closing doors and picking up favourite things, when the building is in danger of imminent collapse and one has to get out fast! A sign of this instability is the economic situation for people living and working here. Gone are the days of easy-come, easy-go employment; many of us today have to work outside Chisholme to make ends meet. This is sure to impact on the quality of our presence here – though may also be an important element of our education.

As for the events and courses to offer, how can we know reliably what is wanted here at the moment? Surely the most primal means is to be still and present in the moment and to listen; where there is intention to be informed, informing can take place. We can’t force the door to open. There is however also a case for making a plan for, say, three years, to begin in six months or even a year’s time. Can these two approaches be held simultaneously?

Maybe we are also too concerned with ‘keeping Chisholme running’; what about simple, unconditional action in the world, such as feeding the hungry? Akong Rinpoche vowed to help remedy hunger after surviving near-starvation while crossing the Himalaya. His reason for feeding the hungry was that a person cannot hope to meditate or be aware while hungry. He spoke of the act of feeding the hungry as a practice, the opportunity ‘to observe the Buddha nature in everybody who comes’. And if those who receive food then ask, one can explain the reasoning.

Maybe there is also a place for taking care of one another, former and present students, as they age and need support. Not in a formalised way, perhaps, but as part of our own practice.

Thursday 7 February

The quality of being alive is keenly felt today, with the possibility of witnessing the beauty of existence. What is this condition of sentience? And life itself, as a quality, is hidden – yet its effects are visible in all that is alive. Perhaps one of the special qualities of the school at Chisholme is that the education here is not merely theoretical but is integrated, through work and practices, into the warp and weft of life and is not separate from life. And this in turn may be the value in a wisdom being given, exceptionally, together with a physical place and not merely in abstraction.

But what we do here does not concern only life, but above all, love. The world ‘outside’ – when seen as different – appears broken and loveless; while here, love is encountered at every step. Those of us whose hearts get broken in the world can find respite here. Though a broken heart can be opened up and made receptive in a way that a ‘well’ heart may not realise. Moreover, it is the broken state of the world that prompts us to seek another way of living and knowing ourselves. Darkness is perhaps a part of this process, like the constriction that accompanies a seed when it is sown.

What is really under consideration here is beyond form and norm. During the war, say, compassion rarely appeared as tenderness; it had to be urgent and robust. Meanwhile, today we question our identity, even our gender. What is a man, a woman? What of each is known in each of us and what is the prototype beyond gender?

In our time, seen particularly in Brexit-era politics, is an inability to listen, and extreme views and deep division. We forget how important it is to really listen and what it is to be really heard. So many people today feel unlistened to. And surely part of our work at Chisholme is real listening. We recognise it: when we are listened to deeply, we feel loved.

Our endeavour (self-knowledge in all its aspects) can be regarded as a creative act. We seek the creative condition as well as the products of others’ creativity. Then we can let go of old certainties and allow in the new. This requires courage. The creativity discussed includes encounter and making connections, two threads from recent days.

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