Midweek Mysticism: One simple thing
This short article is very simple. It is about the “one simple thing” necessary to gain a translucently new perspective on what constitutes the world and our place in it. Being practical, it concentrates mainly on method.
For a direct, unsystematised method of mystical practice we need look no further than an anonymous 14th-century Christian codex known as The Book of Privy Counselling, or The Epistle of Privy Counsel.
Scholars believe that this luminous text was written by a monkish clergyman from the East Midlands of England around the year 1380. Earlier, the same man had composed the much admired Cloud of Unknowing.
Privy Counsel, while shorter, is a more mature work, focusing directly on “one simple exercise” which clarifies the mind for enlightenment. The exercise really is simple. In fact, so slight does it seem that the author feels obliged to caution us against a disbelieving complacency.
This exercise is so potent, he insists, that it can unite the soul of the most uncouth man alive to the higher Self, or God. And he continues with his “uncouth” comparison, “This is not a very difficult thing to do, however stupid one might be — or so it seems to me. … For the only man I can think of who would be too stupid or ignorant for this would be the man who was incapable of recognising that he existed: ignorant not of what he is, so much that he is.”
The exercise suggested in Privy Counsel is indeed simplicity itself. We are to concentrate our whole attention on the bare fact of our own existence, the blind awareness of our being. We are enjoined to leave behind all our knowledge and intellectual enquiries and just rest on the naked feel of I Am. In so doing we surrender the thinking faculty of our relative ego to the absolute “I”.
Astonishingly, this is precisely the same technique as the 17th-century Japanese Zen master Bankei’s “living in the Unborn”, and the 20th-century Indian Ramana Maharshi’s “concentration on the ‘I’ thought”. Such a measure of agreement can only highlight the wonderful unanimity of the enlightenment condition.
Comparing the three texts directly (Privy Counsel, Ramana’s teachings, and Bankei’s sermons) is almost like reading a continuous narrative written by one person from within three very different traditions and times. But why should we assume that the truth could not link 14th-century England, 17th-century Japan and 20th-century India?
The author of Privy Counsel speaks with the authority of one who has made the journey: the result of this deceptively simple exercise is, “advanced spiritual wisdom, suddenly and freely thrown up by the Spirit from within itself.” Moreover, you are likely to be surprised by what you perceive in this state, as it is “not what you have been led to expect here on earth.”
The congruity of view between the unsentimental psychology of Privy Counsel and other methods: Buddhist Mindfulness, Taoist Guarding of the One, Living in the Unborn, Concentrating on the “I” thought, brings one inevitably to the conclusion that, at the highest level, there is only one world religion, Mysticism — the eternal quest for immortality.
From this point of view, the world’s religions appear complementary, appealing to different temperaments at different times in their development. For example, Christianity is often presented in such emotional terms — no doubt due to its Italian roots as an organised faith — that it often helps to study a cool, psychological religion like Buddhism to make sense of it.
Privy Counsel is a rare exception in Christian literature in that it goes straight to the meaning and the practice of spiritual observance without the exaggerated pieties of churchified forms. The 14th-century author recognises that only individuals ready for it can make this journey, that not all are called to this task immediately, and that crisp definitions at the level of psychology are what they need most at this time.
As the anonymous writer of the Cloud and Privy Counsel is at pains to express, you are now your own cross. You have to “take up your cross” and bear the burden of your body and self before enlightenment can take place.
Similarly, the real meaning of the Buddha’s Middle Way is not found in an ethical position midway between hedonism and asceticism, but in a living state of being.
It is a walking in the world with a firm consciousness of the still spirit within, while simultaneously taking in the passing pageant of events. In this state the ego does not dominate our thoughts, but acts in a subordinate role, as intended: an instrument, not a master.
That is enlightenment.
* John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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