Last week (the third week of the month) one of our friends passed away and was then interred at Chisholme. No conversations were held during that week. Below are notes from the final (fourth) week from 25 February.
Monday 25 February
As part of the practice of the conversation this month, breakfast for Chisholme residents has been held in silence. This enabled many of us to be more aware of a wide range of emotional states than we would normally, and also to sense a real pleasure in being with others, which goes unnoticed when there is smalltalk, which is in the mode of ‘doing’.
Moreover, the passing of one of our friends last week left many of us speechless in one way or another, and in this the silence was a mercy.
Silence, then, is not merely the absence of talk. Rather, it opens up a space for communication with ourselves, to hear the various voices within us. There is a clarity that contrasts with the noise usually present in the mind, in which we are often disorientated and matters are not brought to completion. As a result, they accumulate as unresolved ‘stuff’. Silence, on the other hand, can engender an unfoldment of what is going on in ourselves.
This month we have wanted to discover what the School is really for. The universe approaches us constantly to explain itself. Yet all we can do is to recognise that our receptivity is covered with lots of stuff. The quality of silence has been valuable in seeing what is important and knowing where we need to direct our attention.
Tuesday 26 February
The conversation began with news that one of our friends is in hospital for heart monitoring. This, together with the burial at Chisholme last week of another friend, brought up thoughts about the fragility of life and the need to really engage with life. We need to look closely at things while we have the opportunity. Along with this is a requirement that we avoid ‘spiritual bypassing’ – a tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks. On what we take to be a spiritual path, there is a danger of erring toward the transcendent and ignoring what is immanent.
It is important that we can come to agree with the self, by recognising the wounds we carry and not trying to pretend they don’t exist. And this is pertinent for Chisholme as well: support is needed for the fabric of the place, some of which is in a stressed state at the moment. It has long been said that an ‘honest appraisal of the self’ is required for progress, yet how does one go about this when there may be wounds that we are not even aware of? We are all reflections of divine names, some of which are frightening. The starting point is to request help from our deepest reality and to face this completely.
An important observation is that we are receptacles: that is, we are receptivity itself. We are both the receptacle and the thing received in it. Our task is to uncover that receptivity, which all too easily gets covered over by secondary considerations. We have a tendency to hold on to what is received at each moment, allowing them to accumulate into an edifice that is fixed and lifeless. Yet it is an aspect of our essential nature that we never tire of hearing ‘news’ from the divine. So how can we uncover this fundamental receptivity? One way is to develop skills – for example, as a trainee psychotherapist can develop skills of deep listening.
Receptivity is already here and it is the uncovering of this that needs to happen. All that comes to us is from the Real. This ties in with the sense of an honest appraisal, and our willingness for this is crucial.
Wednesday 27 February
Sometimes it is hard to remember what is sometimes called the ‘first pill’ – that of being certain that there is only one absolute. So how do we proceed when we can’t keep this in mind?
So far as we are creatures, our bodies are constant remembrance of their reality, which is that one absolute. What is it then that doesn’t remember? The always-busy mind. We have spoken many times about practicing presence in the mind. Yet real certainty is always there deep in us, beyond the states that we know, that go up and down.
We may also be given occasional flashes of insight. If this happens, our work is to remember them and live in that knowledge. Ibn ‘Arabi was given complete realisation while a young man, and his life’s work was to unpack and detail what he had been shown. The Real wants to be known in this universe because of this detailing, where it is possible for all of its ‘names’ to be expressed. And we as humans are like a hologram of the total.
The practice of discrimination is an active approach to such remembrance. Discrimination is tantamount to remembering the One in every instant, albeit in ever-different ways, because the configuration changes constantly. Similarly the yoga sutras (‘yoga’ means ‘union’) speak of discrimination between the Being and everything else – all that gives It name and form, or the real Being and Its appearance.
It was said earlier this month that ‘devotion is discrimination’. Here is the aspect of commitment: find a means of devotion, and it is remembered in an incremental sense until one is fully committed to the Real. This can also be called love. Those who
are committed are not put off by anything, their certainty can be leant on. Being devoted means to have completely given yourself. The story of Abraham was recalled. He was asked to sacrifice his son, although he had been told that a great nation would result from him. It was not his faith that was being tested here but his knowledge. At the last minute he was told by the angel that he could sacrifice a ram instead. The ram was a symbol of himself, thus, of giving himself up completely.
Thursday 28 February
The final morning of February and of its conversation practice did not bring a sense of finality or completion, but rather of more questions. Various themes have arisen over the course of the month, many of them familiar as ideas but ever new in the experiencing: silence, awareness, being present, devotion, discrimination, the importance of questions, announcement, language, embodiment, receptivity and listening; these, again, are not answers so much as continuing questions.
There was an admission by many that this month of conversation had not been easy. Older students have a tendency to surround themselves with what can become a personal religion, which then does not have freshness for newer comers. There can be a false familiarity in these sessions if they are not kept very fresh. Some of the more recent students felt that there were too many old certainties and a degree of self-indulgence, so that although much of benefit was spoken of, the full potential for conversation was not reached.
One of the students on the recent Forty-Day course expressed interest in helping to form the future of Chisholme, and a suggestion was made that the wider group of 40-day students could be consulted as a body for whatever vision they might have.
Concern was expressed at what continues to be an onerous experience for people living and working at Chisholme. The work is demanding and the hours are long, and – not for the first time – there are questions about how it could be different. People need to feel cared for and nourished. Admittedly, each of us as individuals must take responsibility for our state and what we bring here; but the environment must still be genuinely supportive.
There is a sense of the importance of continuing to gather in a spirit of enquiry now that the month of February is over. This might take the form of a day of deep practice, held from time to time, open to both long-standing and recent students, and could allow engagement and conversation without slipping back into old familiar language. What form could this take? How would it go ahead?
The session ended before the detail was resolved, and so the month ended as it had begun, with a question.
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