Dan, our Primary Counsellor, shares some more thoughts to help us through the challenging situation we find ourselves in.
Awaken. Do not squander your life. Live with your humble heart wide open…(Unknown nun ‘fire-green eyes’, Convent retreat, Chigwell 1999)
I stumbled across this quote written in an old contemplative notebook I filled some 21 years ago whilst on retreat in an Essex convent. Next to the quote is written (in my barely legible scrawl) ‘nun fire-green eyes’. I suspect I wrote the attribution in haste to follow up later, but didn’t get around to it. I do however remember distinctly the emerald fire in the eyes of the frail nun when she spoke these words and looked pointedly at me. An emptying practice indeed.
In today's world the word ‘humility’ has somewhat lost its appeal. And yet psychological and spiritual growth begins and ends with it. Suffering deepens our humility. What might at first seem like a terrible humiliation (and to a degree might well be) is often the most dramatic demonstration of our ultimate fragility and existential precariousness. But it also allows us to see ourselves as we are, freed from our usual illusions. Humility cuts through the crust of our self-pretensions, our aspirations, our goals and our attitudes towards others. It serves our spiritual growth, inspiring us to make a change beyond our usual egoic desires, and to embrace a subtler, simpler and emptier personal self. Like a falling cat about to land, our sudden suffering helps us find and rely upon our centre.
Just as a good student is revealed in the quality of their questions (and not their answers), the contemplative spirit is revealed in the sincerity of ones suffering (and not the outcome). Right now, suffering and humility are persistent bedfellows in my inner and outer life, especially at 3am in the morning. The fact is, though, I’m often feeling upset, frustrated, disappointed or afraid. The nature of this particular suffering is one that seems (to me) both devastatingly unfair and invites humiliation or reputational damage in equal measure. I’m fortunate to have become encircled by the contemplative vision and intent of others over the years, else I might have lost sight more often of the larger dimension of this season of suffering beyond my narrow personal vision.
Most of us have developed a protective shell against suffering. It’s the habitual edginess that comes from perpetually resisting the way things are. But, as I’m discovering right now for about the hundredth time over, once you recognise what you are holding onto in resistance against real or imagined pain, you can begin to let go a little and allow life to unfold in its own sweet way and time. It will unfold anyway, whether ‘you’ manage to get out of the way enough or not. It’s exhausting to resist the inevitability of occasional suffering or humiliation. With awareness develops the insight that one might just be working against a deeper grain of wisdom anyway.
Humble suffering opens us to receive the benefits of darkness and to surrender to the larger and more symbolic dimensions of life. Perspective rises out of the duality of suffering←→ not suffering; If not for frost we would not always appreciate the roaring fire. Suffering, however unwelcome or underserved we imagine it to be, forces us to see beyond where we might be stuck. It ultimately helps us to transcend our attachments, our hidden agendas, and elaborate attempts to have life our own way. We can be thrown unwilling into utter simplicity, a quick cut to the marrow of precisely what we really need in this life. It reveals to us our ultimate naked poverty and yet shows us that in that poverty we are ultimately enough. A contemporary monastic spirit encourages simplicity through integration of all aspects of life, whether light or dark. Merton reminds us that ‘The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.’ Sometimes a broken heart is in service of being made whole again in a deeper and more intimately profound way than before. From the further shore of the contemplative vision of life, hearts aren't just broken but are renewed and made more real. The old heart is mired in misunderstanding - we are tragically human after all - and the breaking down of the thick walls of the temporal ego, of self-centredness and inauthenticity is in ultimate service of a holy (re)integration.
That’s not the end of it though. No longer struggling against the unfairness of it all and less reliant on a preferred outcome, you might instead feel a sudden deep tiredness and/or tenderness. The path of humility and its attendant suffering is for open-hearted people, after all. As your heart paradoxically softens to life and yields less to your ‘known’ self-protective storylines, the imaginal breaking through of a new heart has to be personally met or integrated in some way. The ego, ever potentially useful (if in service of its own emptying out), has to respond in the right way. The only response is silence. Some people approach contemplative practice imagining that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. But practicing silence is not a prohibition nor a repression. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here within the cave of our collective heart. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but with less attendant interior noise. Inner silence invites a quiet joy that harmonizes with all outer activity. It is the pathway to a blessed simplicity.
Suffering opens up and sensitises our heart; This is the price we have for being awake. In order to pace ourselves in engaged broken-heartedness we might simultaneously engage our health and vulnerability. Make something beautiful that won’t last. Keep the energy in you moving, even if in the direction of change. Your subtle body is fluid. It’s part of a wider resiliency that includes nature so look towards nature with childlike curiosity. Can you simply sit in the animate and inanimate world of Nature and feel its wisdom? In ‘Ascent to the depth of the heart’ , the Christian-Hindu mystic Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) likened enlightenment or ‘satori’ to a realisation that ‘the centre is as truly everywhere as it is in myself’. Be useful and useless. Bring both helpful supplies and something hopelessly beautiful to someone who is ill. Be productive in wasting time. But do everything with as much awareness focused in your heart as possible. It is the silent and cavernous host of engaged divine action.
At the moment of death the only thing that really matters is the condition of your fragile and beautiful heart
A terminal client once said to me that ‘at the moment of death the only thing that really matters is the condition of your fragile and beautiful heart’. He had come to realise this spiritual truth in the last few months of a painful but beautiful end to his (too) short life. It has become something of a loving whisper in my quieter moments, a reminder of what I ultimately hold most dear in this existence.
What is the condition of your fragile and beautiful heart?
What is the condition of your fragile and beautiful heart?
The Unthought Known is a short daily writing reflective of a contemplative perspective on life. It is the fruit of many years of reflective note taking on a range of spiritual texts and in that spirit no inherent originality is claimed. If it offers comfort amidst adversity, read the text and call whatever resonates to mind when needed (even if just a short phrase from the larger text), allowing it to soak into the marrow of your bones and merge with your breath. Remember, we are all in this together.
Take good care, Dan