My friend Louis has a blog called Ralston Creek Review. He has created a place there devoted to observations and commentary about the Tao Te Ching, the first 37 chapters of which I have also commented on here as a result of his unbearable insistence that I do so. (Not really – I actually did it to myself.)
There has always been a simpatico resonance present between Louis’ and my own related commentary on the TTC, but after Chapter 37 I took a break from my own (roughly, off and on, sort of) weekly contribution to the effort while Louis, a paragon of tireless application and an admirably disciplined guy, devotedly carried forward his efforts.
I, instead of doing that – and being more true to my type which only begins to be described as a mercurial spiritual butterfly – have been availing myself of the blooms he continues to produce, and lately that sympathetic resonance I mention has reached a reverberating frequency high enough that it is producing ever more bounce-back in the form of lengthy responses from me, which I have, up until now, been posting on his blog rather than here.
It has occurred to me that I am using too much of his bandwidth, and I would certainly not want him to run out of byte room there and so deprive myself of his work. So I have decided to begin posting my responses here instead. There are some who will be heartened by this development, knowing that at the rate I am going I will soon run out of byte room here and the world will become as a result a much better and quieter place.
This, then, is my response to his commentary and the subsequently generated call-and-response replies begun at the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 54, posted at Ralston Creek Review. It would be well to read Louis’ commentary and the replies there before going forward from this point here, and I strongly encourage you to do so.
That being said, here it is:
Well done and well said, Louis.
Al sounds like a wise man, a practical-minded sage. It amazes me who people really are. People tend to think of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, cabinet-makers, contractors, and just generally everybody else as persons immersed in their trades or defined by their professions, people with “normal” identities in their personal lives who go home, read a paper, watch TV, have a family, play video games, eat sugar, get fat, etc. – and all in all just conform to some vague, mundane social stereotype of what “common” people do. My experience tells me no one is “common” in that sense. The world is full of people living an uncommon life, and living it fully.
Your comments moved me to go to my bookshelf and revisit a couple of treasured books I haven’t looked at for quite awhile, Helen Bacovcin’s translation of “The Way of a Pilgrim,” and “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence. When I discovered the dog-eared pages and heavy underlining it carried me back to a time in my life when I was wholly devoted to the full-time exploration and study and earnest practice of spiritual knowledge and the ways of spiritually conscious people.
I lived in the mountains in Colorado then, not far from Trungpa Rinpoche’s ashram and about a half hour from Boulder, where Allan Ginsburg and the Naropa Institute were embracing a sort of Hassidic Beat Zen sensibility. My study and practice involved neither. I encountered an anonymous Master in the mountains there out of pure “serendipitous non-coincidence” – that is to say, I had become ready and so the Teacher had appeared.
My master’s method was to teach an equal rather than an acolyte. He was my elder and held a great fund of knowledge and knowing, yet he shared rather than instructed and advised rather than directed. In all the moments we shared together the consciousness of “who we are really” was not restricted by definitions of a master’s superiority or a student’s ignorance. We were just two people sharing this life in exactly the way described in your quote from Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free No. 10,″ which is what reminded me of those days. We were souls; equal, unique and mutually interesting, and my own enrichment and knowledge and knowing flourished in that environment.
One of the earliest things we spoke of was the importance of prayer, and so I began to study and practice that. The above mentioned books constituted my introduction to the classic form of prayer. As time has gone on the form has changed for me, but the practice remains essential to my life.
The form of prayer can be as extensive and disciplined as the form described in The Way of the Pilgrim. As Al so wisely imparted to you, the form can be as short as two words. It can be shorter. It can be wordless. It can be nothing more than a developed reflexive calming response which leads to, as you note, a “release of control,” a giving up and giving over of the self-mind, a capitulation of desire and a commending of our entire self into the hands of the great mystery which is within, without, and throughout all things. Some call it God, some the Tao, some have other names as we have so often noted in these pages before.
The triune godhead which we have spoken of and is reflected in one tradition as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is reflected in my mind (here and now, although they shift locations in the lexicon of mind and find different words in different places often) in the words the Tao, the Self, and the Bridge – although they are wholly unworthy to encompass what each is.
Al’s suggestion is a way to connect the first and second by way of the third. It is a universal practice which has come to us from the divine ground and then been pressed into as many forms as there are religions and belief systems, because it is the actualization process of an essential thing which is always active and present in our human experience. When embraced, the prayer of release enriches our experience in a truly boggling, extraordinary way.
When I cracked open “The Practice of the Presence of God” the oracular method of approaching a book for an answer didn’t fail me, a thing which always pleases me and comes always to confirm the wonderful, mysterious connections afoot in the universe. I found the Fourth Letter before me and, near the end of it, flagged for me with the word “torrent,” an affirmation of my earlier observation of how connection and consciousness flow from release:
“…there they flow like a torrent which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.”
The Prayer of Release, regardless of the form, opens that passage. In my own experience it can come in the practice of the calming breath or, in extremity, a repetition of my own prayer of release, formed by my own experience and personal to me. That prayer, uttered so often, has become inextricably embedded with the essence of the thing, and calls release forth like a reflex. It is vital to my own experience and not an option for me. I think anyone who practices it has the same feelings about it.
As far as the belief which projects quantum shifts in global consciousness occurring when 1% of the population experience the benefits of meditation and prayer I will say this:
It’s a multidimensional universe, and quantum shifts are occurring constantly at an inconceivable order of magnitude from moment to moment. When one – just one – practice of prayer occurs, there is a consonant quantum shift in global consciousness, in the universe at large, and in the world in which we live our daily life. At times those shifts can manifest in our own particular experience in miraculous ways. It is not our viewpoint which has shifted – it is the Tao, it is the universe, it is global consciousness, it is everything – and it shifts in that adjustment because it is you and desires to in all ways be with you and not be separated from itself. Al can likely describe the effect on the “Sonship” of the prayer he practices, and I expect that his description will resonate with these thoughts also.
To address and ratify your observations about the horrors and glories present in the world – genocide, holocaust, whole societies evolved into the antithesis of the Noble Path, and also the presence of selflessness, generosity, service to others, commitments to right thinking and right action – I’d say well, yes, there they are.
And then I would say, and here am I. Then I would ask, what am I to do about it? And then, knowing through experience and countless failed attempts to do so that I cannot answer that question by myself, I would release it in a prayer and wait.
One of the things about things released in prayer is that an answer is always returned. It may be quiet and soft and still and barely perceptible within the threshold of local consciousness, but it is always there. It may be so simple as to be regarded as no answer at all. Yet it is there, and it is an answer.
In the terms of a Course in Miracles, the miracle comes when we give our illusions of perception and the hallucination of personal control and self-sufficiency in such matters over to the Holy Spirit. We let them go, release the things which trouble us, and because the truth of who we really are does not wish these illusions to remain in us, or we with them, it sends the answer back across the bridge, sometimes as a torrent, sometimes as the still, small voice within.
The answer I have been given to that particular prayer, which I still find it necessary to pray from time to time because perfect and permanent release of the “real world” is not part of my particular path, at least for now – is an odd one. Rather than share it here I’d simply say it’s better if every person seeks and is given the answer through their own practice of prayer.
And finally a footnote to the above personal reminiscences, which I feel compelled to make in order to give folks the opportunity to hear more than an ego speaking there.
My time in the Colorado mountains spent in a sort of specialized, monastic practice is a time in my life which I treasure. It was a time when, in a pure and honest openness I approached the spiritual life earnestly and with dedication. For a time there the practice of the presence of God and the admonition to pray unceasingly led me to the discipline necessary to be able to constantly repeat the “Jesus Prayer” in the background of waking and sleeping consciousness without pause. It came for five days or so and then it slowly subsided as I walked forward on my own path, learning ever less from the prescribed forms of established practice, learning ever more on the divine ground itself through prayer and stillness. In retrospect I see this was the way of my Master, and he taught me well. I remember it all as one of the great granted graces in my life.
What I want to emphasize here is not the “specialness” of my experience, but the knowing which evolved as a result of it. In the beginning, the admonition to pray without ceasing was paramount, and it is indeed a singularly powerful path. Yet eventually I came to regard every life, and all life, everywhere, as a constantly unceasing prayer which we are engaged in, and while consciousness of that fact is a powerful grace and blessing, it is not a requirement. It is just good to be aware of it.
Eventually my practice led me to a place of choice, and the choice I made was to conclude the specialized practice of those useful and esoteric forms which had taken me so far along in the development of my own consciousness and which prevail in the focused environs of the monastery and ashram. I determined that I would follow the path of karma yoga.
I chose to go out into the world, and live in it and experience everything there, the glory and joy and mundanity and lostness and everything every one of us experiences in our lives. It is a good thing to do. Jesus chose to live that way, which recommends it well, and the example given there is a model of the unity of existential and spiritual being.
Few of us are so perfectly conscious as Christ or the Buddha, yet the perfect, ongoing, unceasing prayer which is in life is in every of us, as perfectly as it is in them. It is what we all are, what every life is – a constant, unceasing prayer.
And so again the words begin to feel inadequate to the thing and I am at the end of this particular expression… Sure wish I could say it better. I’ve given it my best for here and now.
Time to go clean up the shop. I’m building something for our Lab Charlie, who is getting old enough to use and appreciate a set of steps to help him get in and out of the car when we go for walks in the woods in places farther away from home than we care to walk to. The cottonwoods are in full storm mode here and my shop floor is covered in a faux snowfall of sawdust and cotton which swirls around my ankles and gets up my nose as I walk through it. Off I go, pinching my nose with one hand, a broom in the other…
PS: On my shelves next to the above two mentioned books are several others from those days in the mountains. After writing this (and returning from the shop full of dust and with little progress made on Charlie’s steps) I pulled another one of those “old friends” from the bookshelf, The Cloud of Unknowing. It holds a ratification of the observation that we cannot grasp the divine with mind, and yet can know it through contemplating with the “heart.”
It too is a work about prayer and the process of opening the passage between the Tao and Self. It was a difficult text for me. I remember having to plow through it a bit at a time in the old days, absorbing and then coming back to reread short bits until I could understand what the author was observing. When I opened it this time the oracle was merciful and the passages I found at the end of of Chapter 6 and the beginning of Chapter 7 were clear and to the point for the purpose of this discussion:
“Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love (that is, my devotion and focus) that thing which I cannot think!”
And shortly after addressing the nature of even good and holy thoughts which might appear during that practice, there is a good description of where it leads if they are taken up rather than released:
“Before you know where you are you are disintegrated beyond belief! … paradoxically, no man or woman can hope to achieve contemplation without the foundation of many such delightful meditations. …All the same, the practised hand must leave them, and put them away deep down in the cloud of forgetting if he is ever to penetrate the cloud of unknowing between him and God.”
Which is yet another reflection on the process, and the effect, of release.