Two Well-Hidden Secrets
The greatest cause of conflict and suffering is our simple ignorance of who we are.
You might know this wonderful tale about Rabbi Akiva. The tale goes that Rabbi Akiva, a deeply prayerful man, was walking one day, so caught up in his prayer that he walked into the wall of a Roman fort. Above him a voice bellowed down, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” Rabbi Akiva looked up, saw the young soldier was a Jew and shouted back “Why are you here? If you come and work for me I’ll pay you double what the Romans are paying you!” The young auxiliary sensibly shouted back, “What do you want me to do for you?” to which Rabbi Akiva replied, “All I want you to do is to wake up before me, and each morning when I come out of my front door I want you to shout, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?”
Ask someone who they are and after saying their name, they will very likely list off how they fill their days. But if we lay to one side all that we do and all the pictures and narratives we routinely use to say who we are, we are left with some rather large and fundamental questions. Who is experiencing this life and what do they look like?
The purpose of meditation is to help us relax our grip on what we have always taken to be the answers to these questions, so the answer can begin to reveal itself.
Despite all our cultural training to the contrary – we are not our thoughts and feelings.
Beneath all that we argue over, all that we think divides us – we all look exactly the same.
This certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, who hold that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. And yet many of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, appear to spend most of our lives seemingly unaware of this.
Much of contemporary culture and education is directed towards the cultivation of the thinking, acquisitive mind. An overwhelming priority and status is given to this important but surface aspect of ourselves. While necessary for our daily life, an over preoccupation with the content of the surface mind seriously limits our enjoyment of life, and holds us at a distance from the depths of who we are, from each other and from God. Almost without realizing it, we can spend our lives watching the flow of thoughts, feelings and concerns that arise in us moment by moment. We can become lost in watching the clouds and forget the clear, luminous sky in which they appear. We can come to believe we are the clouds.
And if the narratives and pictures we use to make sense of our lives conflict with the narratives and pictures that others hold? Well, we all know what can and does routinely happen.
Parting the Veils
We practice meditation that we may see clearly and act with compassion: that we may, in the words of Rowan Williams, “be capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom: freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them”.
Learning to meet our thoughts and feelings with silence, directly and as they are, without immediately reacting and adding commentary to them, can give us a powerful sense of the possibility of change in our lives. We start to glimpse beyond the clouds. We start to see beyond what we do and who we are starts to unfold. We learn to step back from judging and from building our judgement into structures to be defended against others, or forced on others. We come to the threshold of a subtle and profoundly important doorway.
I once knew a brilliant lawyer (we’ll call him David) who was regularly afflicted by severe bouts of painful anxiety. His clients loved him. He was technically brilliant and always gave excellent, detailed advice. Yet despite being a very good lawyer, he regularly suffered crushing waves of anxiety and was endlessly worried about making a mistake, of some calamity ensuing.
David just thought this was the way he was and how life would always be. In conversation he would shrug his shoulders and say “I’m just an anxious person”. This was where David began his meditation. But in time, having established regular periods of meditation at the beginning and the end of each day, David cultivated a new way of engaging with his anxious thoughts and feelings.
Firstly, he learnt to look at the afflictive emotion with stillness.
Secondly, he learnt to allow the fear to be present.
Thirdly, he learnt to let go of the reactive narrative he used to routinely wrap around the fear.
Before too long, David was able to be still and silent when confronted by an anxious thought. He learnt to recognise and step back from the negative narratives he formerly applied to himself and the world around him.
The practice of stillness and silence gently introduced David to an inner peace and stability he had never known before, which continued to flower and open as he continued with his practice. Month by month, David became increasingly aware of the clear, silent peace within himself. He came to experience his relationships with others and the world in a new light. He came to realise that he was not the anxious thoughts or feelings he was experiencing, but the person looking at them.
And it was at this point that David was able to ask a very fundamental question. If he was not his thoughts and feelings, but the person observing them, what did that person look like?
Meditation creates a space of opportunity. It disposes us to the peace that transfigures all that divides us and lays bare who we are.