Monday 11 February
Being embodied beings, living in a world of relativity that is illusory, we are prone to believing in that illusion. When something occurs that knocks us out of that illusion, into a sense of the underlying reality, this is an awakening. We then desire not to be in thrall to the illusion, but to see it for what it is – illusory, yet also not other than the expression of the Real.
But how can we be freed of the pervasive (somebody said ‘formidable’) nature of this all-encompassing illusion, and the conjectures we make under its effects? A good start is to return to our essential non-existence. You and I have no existence of our own; the existence we have is lent by the only real Being. When we re-remember this, the illusion – both as unreal and as real – falls into place. And we have the choice, breath by breath, of staying with (and serving) that vision or not.
A useful guide here is to distinguish between our ideas of awareness, and ideas of what happens to us when we are aware, and the direct experience of awareness itself. Awareness in itself is unnamed and quiet by nature (whatever its contents); but our thoughts about it seem always to try to punctuate it, to grasp it, to own it, to describe it, name it, formulate it, delimit it. Therein lies the difference, and that difference is a guide for us.
Another aspect of awareness is witnessing. The relative world has been described as ‘the universe of witnessing’. A witness in a court case has the task of observing without conjecture. Bearing witness appears in the formulations of religious creeds. Awareness is the faculty by which things can be witnessed – that is, seen as they are, without colouring or conjecture or misappropriation. It may be said that real witnessing is the real purpose of humanity: to bear witness to the expressions of the Real in all its modes.
The cultivation of awareness, the wakefulness that keeps us from being taken by the illusory – these are signs that a person is evolving. To evolve, then, is… what? Perhaps to recognise that for the single being there is a singular vision, and that we have the potential to see that vision. We, with our own, partial vision, accept that it is partial, and prefer the total. To abide by this preference and to serve it, through witnessing and awareness, is our way to evolve. And perhaps by cultivating our intimate relationship with our reality. The Real loves to be engaged with. The soul longs for its homeland, the ancient, the uncreated. So the work of the soul to dwell there is the work of one who is evolving.
Tuesday 12 February
Inanimate objects, such as cups and plates, have been said to embody their purpose in existence perfectly, in that they do not express a will of their own. They submit entirely to the wishes of those who use them without protesting; they cannot move by themselves but can only be moved. As such they serve as teachers: so can we find, or cultivate, a similar level of submission and servanthood to the one Being? If one speaks of a divine will, can we respond to that rather than to what appears as our own will?
Yet what seemed at first to be a straightforward distinction between ‘divine will’ and ‘self-will’ turns out not to be so clear. We cannot know the divine will except where it indicates itself. As for our so-called own will, this is not a thing in itself but the result of an intersection between divine will and the particular circumstances in which we appear as selves. Thought cannot resolve the two, and we only experience disquiet if we try. Even attempting to distinguish between the ‘level of the divine’ and the ‘level of the creature’ becomes indistinct.
Perhaps this is because the human stands with feet on the ground and head in the air, joining and separating above and below, the infinite of what is above and the knowable underneath. Perhaps yet we who think we are standing on a river bank and watching the water flowing at our feet are in fact submerged, are part of the river, and in reality not abstracted from it at all.
Wednesday 13 February
Certain spiritual adepts, such as Ibn ‘Arabi, used to spend time in graveyards, communing with the dead – who, he said, were the truly alive, unlike the apparently living who were for the most part asleep. Few of us know this as a faculty ourselves; but news of it points to the eternal nature of our reality. Death is not an end in any sheer sense, and what remains after death is the spirit of the person, or their light, with which, in some cases, a knower in this life can communicate.
This present lifetime, meanwhile, is the chance each of us has to wake up to our reality, to that of us which is ancient and eternal, and to establish a condition of service to that reality. This life is for that purpose – and perhaps it consists in the witnessing that was spoken of yesterday. Yet the condition of being a living being in a body makes this both possible and also difficult. Embodied life brings veils with it, such as the ego self. The body itself, however, is not only a veil; it is also an instrument of sentience, wisdom, presence and intelligence. It is the instrument we are given to achieve the task set for us.
And although we may not be able consciously to ‘communicate with the dead’, there is yet connection with the world of spirit going on at all times, perhaps most evidently when we go to sleep and many of the veils of what we call wakefulness fall away.
The term himma describes a spiritual power established for certain people who died after achieving what is known as union at a high degree. This is an energy that gives help, and is quite personal – from the specific ‘secret’ of one person to the specific aid of another. It is perhaps recognisable in other cultures in which there is a revering of ancestors or past saints, but as it is spoke of here, it is in a perfect, transparent form, universal and esoteric, not tied to a tradition. As students we often find difficulty communicating about the ineffable and inexpressible. Perhaps the vehicle for conveying such matters is himma, transmitted as direct effect rather than by way of a description, so that it is experienced directly by the organ capable of receiving it.
Later in the conversation a question arose about… questions. The conversation generally begins from a question, to open it, not necessarily to provide an answer in a limiting sense, and perhaps to reveal further questions. These questions are clearly not ordinary questions for the provision of information, but are from the heart, from the recipient of revelation. So what is a question, we asked? Once we were told that each of us is a question. Maybe each of us in our relationship and approach to our reality, our ‘affair’, is a question, as it is a quest; so it is that which moves us forward and constantly changes, though has a recognisable thread at all times. Such questions are not satisfied by paltry answers. They themselves engender more questions. And questions are a sign of being alive.
Thursday 14 February
Contrasting the modern scientific mind with, say, the mystical mindset of the educated person of the Middle Ages, is like contrasting ‘how’ with ‘why’. Is one of these superior to the other? Does one exclude the other? Certainly we see today what appears to be an imbalance towards the scientific, with verifiable evidence demanded for any claim, and a mistrust of inherited belief or even of intuition. Yet there is beauty in both these approaches to truth, and both respond to beauty.
A true scientist is prepared to admit when he or she is wrong. Their pursuit is the truth, and not their own success or failure. This is so in the best cases, even if much scientific research is funded for commercial purposes and there is pressure for a successful ‘outcome’.
The nineteenth-century Algerian ‘Abd al-Qader (Abdalkader), who led a resistance movement against the French and was later honoured by his captors, and who was present at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, found himself bridging a deeply traditional culture in his homeland and a rapidly modernising scientific culture in Europe. Realising what was required, he wrote that if the modern scientific thinker did not consider who was really in charge, he would become no more than a consumer, whereas if the Islamic traditional community did not embrace the scientific mindset, it would remain ossified and unchanging. So each requires the other for completeness.
It has been said at Chisholme at various times that life in the world is subject to ‘three souls’ – spirituality, science and finance. Of these, finance is obvious to all in its current corrupted state of imbalance of wealth. Finance has its real purpose in movement and flow, and can express compassion when people give freely after a disaster. It finds its place in relation to science as man’s enquiry about his world, and spirituality, that is, the matrix of religious and other spiritual experience and aspiration for the human soul. Here then is an answer of sorts – that not only science and the spiritual go together in our understanding of the external world, but that the world of economics is equally an integral part.
Friday 15 February
One of the body of students at the school will be leaving shortly and asked what he could tell others about his time here, beyond his own immediate experiences. We found it not easy to come up with any kind of formulaic response. It would depend clearly on the situation and the condition of the person asking as to what one could say. For this is not a religious institution with a fixed creed and symbols; it is transparent and largely hidden, the ‘creed’ only that being is one and that the human being has an exceptional potential for realising his or her own being within that oneness.
As for dealing with the injustices and atrocities of the world, gathered and concentrated for us as they are by the media, we can respond only that the underlying mercy that enables all things to be what they are includes the possibility for them to be asleep and in ignorance. This is something we must bear in mind when out and about. And yet, for the human, there is always a further, more specific quality of mercy that can draw him back to his origin and perhaps realise something of the height of the complete person.
The ambiguity evident in our attempts to communicate the school to others – if this is what is required – is reflected in an ongoing discussion about the Islamic calligraphies that are displayed in most if not all of the rooms of the school. For a student who has been steeped in the education of the place for decades, these calligraphies represent at best the height of meaning, and at worst, are a familiar comfort. For a newcomer with a 21st-century mind, however, they are likely to set alarm bells ringing. Is this a cult? Do Islamists come here? Or is it rather a case of cultural appropriation? It is important that the people working and staying here long-term know enough about the various pieces of calligraphy that they can provide an answer that will be met by the visitor. The deeper meanings that become evident over time are private, perhaps, and cannot easily be conveyed, at least not at first, but there is a basic faculty of representation that we seek to acquire with some urgency.
Saturday 16 February
The school at Chisholme has a specific function, which is to announce ‘news’ to the heart of anybody who is able to hear it. This news is good news, and is about who we really are, of our reality as none other than the one and only Being – and that this is something we can approach and know for ourselves, through ourselves and through the world in which we find ourselves.
Yet, as we have asked ourselves practically every day this month in one way or another, how does one go about announcing this? Attempts in the past to explain something, or to have ‘some thing’ to offer, have invariably fallen flat. This news, and the education that arises from it, cannot be made into a quantifiable thing, nor into a ‘brand’ of any kind. (Thank goodness!)
Perhaps the point is that this education does not act on the material plane, nor on a rational mind, but rather, it addresses the innermost heart. It is the action of spirit on the receptor of spirit, which is also spirit. Attempts to define or explain it are bound to fail. Perhaps, then we are advised to refrain from these attempts at explanation. Rather, the school’s task, so far as we see it at the moment, is simply to offer courses that help students to receive the ‘news’ for themselves about their humanity, in a practical manner without pretensions.
Along with this, we can but engage in our own practice, while trusting that what is required will come about as it must. Another name for this is surrender (or submission). Such words are contentious in general parlance today, particularly in the case of women who have been forced to ‘submit’ to male dominance, and this provoked some impassioned discussion in our conversation. Yet real surrender is not an act of weakness or resignation or helplessness. It is an active, conscious choice, and is made from a place of strength. The example was cited of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, in which the angel Gabriel appeared to her in the form of a man. Staying close to her devotions, Mary turned away at first, seeking certainty from God that this was genuinely wanted, after which she was able to accept his ‘breathing into her’ from a position of certainty and strength.
This condition of surrender opens vast interior vistas and can bring about much change. We might also see that in the face of submission to the Real, both masculine and feminine principles must surrender, that is, are in this respect feminine. It is a strong indication and points a way forward for the place and the people who come here.
The Red Sail
Katharine Tiernan writes about St Cuthbert's years
in retreat, for Beshara Magazine
The Twenty-Nine Pages
An Introduction to Ibn 'Arabi's Metaphysics of Unity
is available from Beshara Publications