Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans
Holidays

Saturday Ramble: Mindfulness? The topic of the moment

FearLast weekend’s press was full of something called mindfulness, a Buddhist concept that contains a great deal of truth.

I’m not sure though that the word defines the principle with enough precision to get through to most people.

What is the mind full of? And is a full mind a good thing? In our intellectual age there’s a lot of stuff to fill countless minds, but is that what we want, or need?

I wrote about mindfulness here some months ago but in very different, and simpler, terms that could be widely understood. In the circumstances, here it is again:

Most of us are aware of a voice, apparently in our heads, that chatters away much of the time. It is not totally coherent and seems to flit over a variety of subject areas in a rambling manner. We think of it as “me”.

It isn’t.

In severe cases it can overwhelm an undisciplined mind and drive an individual to the brink of madness. But why is it there? What purpose does it serve?

When we are deeply interested in something, the intense force of our concentration overrides the chattering imp and silences it. Close observation of our mind, as in meditation, soon shows the voice who’s boss. Watch a cat stalking a mouse or a bird. It’s a masterclass in total integration of body and mind, embodied in silence.

Modern humans are split in many ways. The voice is only one indication, but the most apparent. The trouble is, we can’t abide silence and use many props, such as radio, TV, cinema and telephone, to overcome random silence.

Yet, in that silence lies sanity and wholeness. We are not the voice. We are the awareness in which our whole being floats.

To centre ourselves in that awareness is to be wholly who we are, free of the self-generated noise and din of the busyness we take for life. When we are concentrating on a book, or even writing one, we become like the cat, fully ourselves.

Mindfulness is a useful practice, but it needs to be defined more tightly. The basic idea is to reduce the contents of the mind so that a deeper truth can emerge without impediment.

Stuffing the mind with facts and notions is not what it’s about.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming soon: Practical Mysticism: A different way of looking at the world.

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Holy Week Mysticism: How Christianity became hard-Left

Priest Simplifications, taken at face value, often throw light on current conditions. So let’s start with one.

Christianity, representing the West, is about “doing good”. Buddhism, representing the East, is about “being good”.

You might think that comes to the same thing, but there’s a universe of difference between them.

Doing good is outgoing and active and involves “care in the community”, working for the downtrodden, taking a “leadership role”.

Being good could be expressed linguistically as “being God”. It is a visceral thing involving body and mind working together, seeking alignment with the highest state of Being.

Thus, Buddhism has given rise to war-free mysticism, spirituality, mindfulness and meditation, while Christianity has spawned the many forms of socialism.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Buddhism is Right-wing (in its real sense of non-interference), Christianity is Left-wing.

Am I shocking you? I do hope so.

“Faith, hope and charity” is all about us in our physical manifestation. Buddhist “mindfulness” takes us beyond the bodily envelope to a spiritual transformation. I could express the point in dozens of ways, but I’ll stick to what popped up on this morning’s Today programme on BBC’s Radio 4.

The main interview was between the incomparable John Humphrys, who gets better with age, and an NHS baked-bean counter called David Behan*, who seems to have an “inspectorate” role in the myth-making machine known as the Health Service.

Behan might be said to be an example of the post-Christian attitude of do-goodery-becomes-mind-game on a heroic scale. He spoke in machine code, an automaton in human form.

Every complaint that’s reported to the appropriate personnel is referred to an in-house process comprising a large team of robots acting out a gigantic manual of approved practices.

Meanwhile, the sick and the elderly suffer horribly in silence — the forgotten ones on the career paths of socialist sociopaths.

Humphrys struggled in vain to reconnect him with the reality of suffering and pain and woeful neglect that is endemic in our State medical system. Behan just prattled on in the approved language of his methodology. In the circumstances, it was hard work to stay tuned.

The news that David Miliband is giving up “doing politics” came as a surge of relief to those of us who shrink from this inhuman modern manifestation of the words of Jesus of Nazareth. A man who has done nothing else in life — are you listening Labour MPs? — is not going to be very good even at “doing” his specialist subject.

The final item on today’s Today, dealt with the latest method of “brain training” (there we go again!) called Mindfulness, which is apparently taking our schools by storm and soothing the savage breasts of overwrought students.

There was no mention that mindfulness is a Buddhist practice that goes all the way back to the Mindfulness Sutra of Gautama Buddha, dating some 600 years before the word “Christianity” was invented by St. Paul to impress the Romans.

Isn’t it strange that a simple technique for “being good” is now used, without attribution, to assist in the 21st-century practice of cramming “skills” — minus knowledge — into young heads as a means of preparing them for life as servants of the State?

The tragedy is, these “kids” will never grow up to BE GOOD.

* David Behan CBE is Chief Executive of the Care Quality Commission and was previously the DoH’s Director General of Social Care, Local Government and Care Partnerships.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming up: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.

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Saturday Ramble: The entrance to the Path of the Immortals

British

A century or more ago, the British bestrode the East, masters of all they surveyed. Unmistakeable in pith helmets and by their cut-glass accents, they were more than just conquerors looking for spoils. A surprising number of them were deeply erudite seekers after truth.

In his eye-opening book, The Buddha and the Sahibs, Charles Allen writes about the men who rediscovered India’s lost religion, Buddhism, then almost completely unknown apart from fleeting glimpses in ancient folk tales. And they really did physically dig it up out of obscurity.

These were the same remarkable people who drove across America in covered wagons to create the United States as we know it today. It was not just their pioneering energy that spurred them on, but also their intellectual and spiritual curiosity that reshaped both East and West in a few short centuries.

Another pith-helmeted British diplomat of the period, John Blofeld, caught and captured in words the last days of the genuine Taoist “immortals,” the hermits who lived high up in the mountains of China before the destructive tide of Marxism and Maoism swept them all away.

In his book, Taoism, he describes his visits to these almost Disneyish characters with their subtle blend of open charm and deep spiritual intent. I’ve long cherished a folk tale of this period, quoted by Blofeld in his book. I’ve used it before, but here it is again:

The Magic in the White Mist
A tale from ancient China concerns a scholar called Fan who, despite an excess of worldly honours, finds the evils of the society he lives in hard to bear.

On the death of his father, he decides to retreat to the solitude of the mountains and become a Taoist Immortal. He finds himself a small hut and furnishes it as best he can with the few possessions he has brought with him and whatever he can gather from the forest.

Day after day, year after year, he spends his time studying his books, meditating and, as befits a Taoist, communing with nature. He quickly becomes attuned to the pace and rhythm of the natural world and acquires a sort of peace.

One thing eludes him however: the Tao itself, the enlightenment he yearns for as the crowning glory of his life and efforts. Has he left behind the world of dust in vain? Were all his accomplishments as scholar and healer to no avail on the most important journey of all?

One day Fan has a visitor. He is a man of sagely bearing, but with a youthfulness that betrays a successful cultivation of the Way. The man enquires generally after Fan’s health and well-being then broaches the topic that is always on his host’s mind.

How is it that a scholar of such high attainments has not even found the entrance to the Path of the Immortals which, he adds mischievously, is staring him in the face?

Noting Fan’s embarrassment, he warns him against looking for it in the beauties of nature: dawns and sunsets, the brilliance of fast-moving mountain streams, the high banks of snowy-white cloud formations. No, he insists, look for it in the mists which creep and spread through the valleys like a shroud. And then he left.

Fan spent the next three years staring down the mountain sides at the swirling mists below. But of enlightenment there was none. Passing foresters thought him a true sage because of his stillness and complete absorption. Fan knew better.

Then one day, in an overwhelming surge of inspiration, he saw it, staring him in the face, just as the sage had said.

Racing down the mountain to the stream where his visitor lived, he burst in upon him. “You have found the Way,” cried his friend, “I always knew you would.”

Fan explained: “I suddenly saw it; these clouds, the sun and moon, the passing seasons, the daily grind — they are all ‘in the Way’. Why should my thoughts separate me from what has always been mine. Just to live is to follow the Way, to be born as an Immortal. Not to resist life, to be part of it, swept along by it, that is the Way. To have faith in your own destiny, to trust life itself to deliver you where you are meant to be and want to go, that is Immortality.”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Fan’s friend, “at last I have found my true master!”

* * * * *

Postscript
The two books cited here are my recommended Summer reading. Amazon is probably the best option for buying them as one is quite elderly and the Charles Allen dates from 2002. I never said it would be easy.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Muscular Mysticism is coming soon.

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Midweek Mysticism: The Comforter

The Comforter A few people have questioned my comparison of the first stage of spiritual enlightment — the Divine Light — with “the Comforter” in John’s Gospel (see here).

It is no surprise to me because many Christians will not allow any crossover between what they think of as Christianity and other forms of mysticism. Their grounds are that, 1) their religion is not mystical, and 2) other religions are Pagan and therefore untrue.

Clearly, they have not read many of the great documents of their faith. Mystical Theology has been an established part of Christianity since a book of the same title was written in the 5th century by that chap with the mystifying name: Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. I can assure you he was no pseud, but took an earlier more famous monk’s name as was common practice at the time.

So let’s take a look at the Comforter and then compare it with some personal descriptions of the Divine Light experience.

The Comforter
To a large extent all religions converge towards a single point the higher up an aspirant climbs the ladder of perfection. This is because mysticism is the highest religion (or religious experience), which encompasses all others. While the mystic inhabits the mountaintop, institutional religions represent the diversity of paths to the summit.

Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17 of John’s Gospel are the purest distillation of mysticism. The Comforter is the Holy Spirit which drops down into those who are ready for higher things. After Jesus’s death, he tells his disciples, another will come to show them the way:

I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it sees him not, neither knows him: but you know him; for he dwells with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

To the world with its physical comforts it remains dark, but the Spirit of truth will show them the unity of all being, and the subordination of the things of this world:

The Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatever I have said to you. … The Spirit of Truth shall testify of me. But not all will be chosen, and those that are will be judged by their level of attainment (their fruits): I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

One could easily translate these passages into the language of Mahayana Buddhism with its Bodhisattvas returning to earth to bring others to enlightenment.

There will be a “presentation” of the truth, and the truth will “sanctify” them. They are nevertheless to remain in the world, but at a higher state than before. Jesus is showing them, and by implication other contemplatives, the way to live and, once chosen (for there is no other way), he stresses again and again that they are not of this world.

The Divine Light
Let’s now have the experiences of two mystics of that first stage of spiritual enlightenment, often known as the Divine Light.

First, here is the testimony of the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and an empty cup
On the marble table top.

As on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Now here is my own description of the same experience over the course of a month:

In the summer of 1992, I was living in the south of Spain writing a book on mystical experiences. As an escape from writing, I had taken up a kind of walking meditation. The aim was partly exercise, but also to give my mind a rest from constant thought.

One day, completely out of the blue, I became aware of a subtle alteration in consciousness. It was as if a grip had been taken on my mind, pleasantly it should be said, and was drawing it back into an area of increasing stillness.

As this rather strange quietness built, it became more and more tangible, like a distinct presence. It wasn’t physical, as far as I could tell; it resembled a warm, yellowish light, a golden glow, even a tingling florescence all around and within me. This supremely-benign condition continued for about half an hour, then mysteriously faded.

Over the next month or so, the state returned virtually every day at varying levels of intensity. At times I found I could induce it at will merely by walking rhythmically. It was a very welcome presence and I came to look forward to its characteristic onset.

The experiences reached a peak one Sunday morning. Unusually I was seated in an armchair reading a book. After a while, the words began to take on a heightened significance and my thought processes slowed right down. I was aware that this was a much deeper experience than anything hitherto.

Reading was now difficult, although not impossible. … I was enjoying this spiritual immersion, which was how it seemed, and after half an hour it left me for good.

The presence was with me continuously for about a month, with my consciousness of it rising and falling in unpredictable ways. It was partly of the body but also external to it in a way I had not knowingly experienced before.

This light is all around us at all times, but is filtered out by the physical brain. When we are opened up to it, a Comforter removes all the cares and woes of physical existence. We get a glimpse of eternity.

Descriptions of mystical states usually differ in quirky ways, but the congruity between the three versions given here is unmistakeable and, in my view, conclusive. The Comforter is the Christian carrier of the Divine Light, a golden glow that brings divinity into the heart of those who are ready for it.

John Evans

… who 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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Midweek Mysticism: Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Bodhisattva

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? wrote poet Alexander Pope about the use of overwhelming force against a defenceless person.

Everyday life often seems like that, especially for the elderly and infirm facing an implacable death in the not too distant future.

In this piece I want to discuss reincarnation, the re-emergence of the butterfly from the wheel of life; in particular as applied to possibly the most charming and attractive figures in all world literature: the bodhisattvas.

The word can be rendered in English as enlightening being. They are found liberally sprinkled through the pages of Mahayana Buddhist texts. Here’s a description from the radiant Flower Garland Sutra:

Some appear in the form of mendicants, some in the
form of priests … some in the form of scholars, scientists,
doctors; some in the form of ascetics, some in the form of
entertainers, some in the form of pietists, some in the form
of bearers of all kinds of arts and crafts — they are seen to
have come, in their various guises, to all villages, cities,
towns, communities, districts and nations … They are
lamps shedding light on the knowledge of all beings … for
the purpose of leading people to perfection.

They can be of either sex, and are definitely ranked among the good guys.

Bodhisattvas are said to be trained in their previous lives for higher states of being but, out of universal compassion, they choose to return to this world to help all beings to the enlightened state.

In the text, there does seem to be rather a lot of them. But bear in mind that this is a celestial overview. In practice, they are thin on the ground. If you have one in your street, you are very fortunate, although it’s doubtful you would know unless you have the “all-seeing eye” of knowledge. Not many people have.

All spiritual literature is full of examples of, and speculations about reincarnation. Early Christians believed in it until it was razed from the record by politically-motivated priests and bishops. Christian politicians have a bad record of burning books they didn’t like or threatened their powerbase.

India still accepts its reality, which is burnt into the culture, as do many eastern countries. Tibet even picks its leader, the Dalai Lama, on the basis of the reincarnation of the last one.

The essential idea is that in any one life we have the opportunity to develop our portion of consciousness into a vehicle capable of lifting us to a higher plane of being after death. If we fail to make the effort, or are not ready for it, we simply return to this life in a different identity until we reach escape velocity, so to speak.

Some advanced beings come back to help us make the transition. They are the bodhisattvas, the enlightening beings. Consider this further excerpt on the work they do:

He saw countless enlightening beings on the
promenades or sitting on their seats, engaged in
various activities. Some were walking around, some
were doing spiritual exercises, some were practising
observation, some were projecting universal compassion,
some were working on various sciences having to do with
the welfare of the world, some were instructing, some
were reciting, some were writing, some were asking
questions, some were engaged in ripening conduct,
concentration, and knowledge …

In the Flower Garland Sutra, the whole universe, with its teams of enlightening beings busy within it, is a vast workshop where everyone is brought to enlightenment in one way or another.

The diversity is immense as befits the adornments of the Universal Consciousness, whose concentration maintains it. But the small details and individual acts of kindness and compassion are no less important, for, in the magnificent Flower Garland vision, each minute grain of sand contains the universe without end.

The world, the supernal manifestation of the Great One, constantly brings into itself countless clouds of forms and sentient beings, each with its own distinctness; but not even the most insignificant speck is refused participation in the vibrant life of the cosmic consciousness.

Within this framework, the enlightening being, who may appear as anything from a doctor to a wandering mendicant, is shown as the progenitor of change and the catalyst of enlightenment:

Then the Buddha extended his right hand, rubbed my head,
and revealed to me a teaching called universal eye, which
is the sphere of all Buddhas, revealing the practice
of enlightening beings, showing the differentiation of the
planes of all universes … communicating to all beings in
accord with their mentalities …

Unfortunately, our western science and materialistic metropolitan existence knows little of this, despite a mass of subtle hints and steers contained in our own spiritual literature. As a culture we have lost touch with the most powerful form of storytelling ever developed: the allegory.

Many of our most famous books exist on two levels: as a simple story, plainly told with a literal meaning, and as an allegorical tale disguising a mystical thread with immortality as its inner core. Much of Renaissance religious art conceals a preoccupation with an afterlife and a strong sense of upward movement.

The butterfly on the wheel has two choices: be broken and fall back to earth, or lift up the head and stretch the wings and soar into eternity.

The bodhisattvas exist to serve that purpose.

John Evans

… who 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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