by Pastor Doug Kings
A wise man once said nothing. (anonymous)
The English Heritage Trust oversees over 400 historic sites, including monuments, castles, forts, palaces, and various kinds of ruins. Among the latter are ancient monasteries, such as the world-famous Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.
Last year during October at 16 such sites, English Heritage designated the last hour they were open each day as an “hour of contemplation.” A spokesperson said visitors and tourists would be urged to “take a step back, center yourself and focus on appreciating the peace and tranquility that is unique to these historic buildings.” For an hour, at least, these ancient prayer sanctuaries would again be free of chatter and buzzing cell phones.
An enthusiastic editorial in The Guardian newspaper described the plan as a “countercultural move that deserves to succeed.” It goes on to note how this practice not only fits these historic religious sites but also contemporary trends.
The booming secular interest in various forms of meditation suggests that the “contemplation hour” may well catch on. Deriving originally from Buddhist practice, “mindfulness” has these days become an industry, spawning apps, online training programmes and other forms of “wellness intervention”. But the [anonymous Christian] author of The Cloud of Unknowing would recognize the original spiritual principle at work: stepping out of the quotidian flow allows a different, deeper attention to be paid to the experience of life itself.
The search for peace and quiet propels many of us to beaches, parks and wilderness areas. Watching the waves, listening to the birds, or smelling the flowers all shift our mental gears to a receptive state before the world’s wonders, and slows down our normally endless mental chatter.
Slowed down, but not necessarily silenced altogether. This is the most common difficulty people have with traditional meditation practice. Closing our eyes in a silent space does not automatically silence the noise in our heads. These conversations, on topics from the profound to the ridiculous, seemingly have no off switch. And typically, the more we tell them to be quiet, the louder they get.
While there is no off switch, there are ways to lower the volume. The first step is to recognize that those mental voices are yapping away most of the time, usually taken for granted or even unnoticed. In moments of exterior silence, their presence become unavoidable.
In our book group this week, we discussed idea of the author, Rupert Spira, that most of us suffer from an “addiction to thinking.” When we regularly experience discomfort or pain, Spira says, we look for some way to distract us from them.
Drugs, tobacco, alcohol, excessive eating and over-working are some of the most common means that suffice for this purpose…. However, by far the most ubiquitous means of avoidance is compulsive thinking.
There are good reasons to think! But that is why it so easily hides its ability to distract us from and help us avoid our pain in the here and now.
There are, of course, many legitimate reasons for thinking – a response to the current situation, planning for the future, evaluating the past, scientific endeavour, investigative or celebratory purposes, and creativity are amongst them – but most thinking serves none of these. Its purpose is simply to take us away from the discomfort of our current experience. If we take any train of thought and ask of it, ‘Where are you going and why?’ the response will often be, ‘I am venturing into the past or future in order to avoid having to face the discomfort of my present circumstance’. (You Are the Happiness You Seek, 2022, pp. 125-126)
As part of our discussion, we also watched a short video by Marshall Davis (the author of a book we read earlier this year), titled “Unfriend Your Self.” In it, Davis describes his experience of responding to inflammatory comments and opinions by some of his Facebook friends. To his chagrin, Davis found himself responding in the same overheated manner of the original posts. Even after logging off, he still ruminated about what was said and what he had written back.
Being on Facebook was supercharging the voices in Davis’ head. But the problem wasn’t really his friends. Rather, it was that these conversations were building up his ego, the false self that is always inflating itself and feeling threatened by other inflated egos. What he needed to do, Davis said, was “unfriend” himself, his hypersensitive illusory ego.
Davis goes on to tell of the Indian elder explaining to a young boy about our struggle with good and evil, telling a story about two wolves that are fighting within us. After listening, the boy asks which wolf will win. The elder replies, “The one you feed.”
The world around us will happily feed our ego all it wants. But we can put our ego on a diet by monitoring who we talk to and what we talk about. By paying attention to what we read and watch and listen to. Media has become amazingly adept at hooking us into its unending stream so we will come back to it again and again. It’s not too extreme to say we can become addicts needing our media fix.
On such a diet, however, our mental voices begin to run out of things to say. As they stop pontificating on global issues, it becomes easier to live in the here and now. Past regrets and future worries start to lose their grip. Genuine challenges in the present become more clearly seen and managed.
As our mental chatter calms down, times of silence becomes both possible and welcome. We discover the surprising truth that we are not our thoughts. Exposing them deflates them and we find a new freedom to simply be. And in that silence and freedom, we begin to know what Paul described as “the peace that surpasses all understanding” and what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of God is with you.” We find our true self at our center and at one with God.
Blessings in your life and ministry.