What supports the churchless? What’s the spiritual equivalent of firm physical ground beneath our feet that provides solidity for every step?
“People of faith” are able to cling to a set of beliefs which usually promise that, no matter how much this world may appear to be a whirlpool where everything changes but change itself, someone or something—Jesus, God, Allah, Guru, Buddha, Krishna, the One—is an utterly dependable rock.
The problem, though, is that this rock isn’t visible. So you aren’t able to hold onto it directly, as you could a real rock in a real river. It’s the idea of a rock that is being clung to. And ideas aren’t reliable. They’re as substantial as the ephemeral connections between neurons that hold them shakily in existence.
One of my oft-repeated favorite sayings is from Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
So the true Rock of Ages isn’t a belief, but an absence of belief. As Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Not only freedom, solid ground also. When you’ve stopped clinging to everything that can’t be depended upon, you’ve got a chance to hold on to something that can.
Rumi, the great Persian mystic, said the same thing as Philip and Janis in his own inimitable fashion:
Fear the existence in which you are now! Your imagination is nothing, and you are nothing. A nothing has fallen in love with a nothing; a nothing-at-all has waylaid a nothing-at-all. When these images have departed, your misunderstanding will be clear to you.
So, how do we clear up our misunderstanding? How do we get rid of images that are nothing and realize the something that remains when illusion leaves?
The answer is contained in countless spiritual teachings. It isn’t complicated. Beliefs and imaginations are thoughts. Get rid of thoughts and you’re much closer to reality. In his wonderful book, “Open Mind, Open Heart,” the Christian contemplative Thomas Keating says:
“I think it can be said that the essential point of all the great spiritual disciplines that the world religions have evolved is the letting go of thoughts. Everything else is subsidiary to that. The goal is to integrate and unify the various levels of one’s being and to surrender that integrated and unified being to God.”
Since he’s a Catholic, Keating frames this method of centering prayer within the Christian tradition. But the beauty of what could also be called mantra meditation is that the method, when practiced properly, leaves traditions of every sort behind.
For as Keating stresses in his book, what you’re trying to do in centering prayer is find the source of thoughts, the thoughtless divine ground of being: “Like boats or debris floating along the surface of a river, our thoughts and feelings must be resting on something. They are resting on the inner stream of consciousness, which is our participation in God’s being.”
So the spiritual journey, he says, “does not require going anywhere because God is already with us and in us. It is a question of allowing our ordinary thoughts to recede into the background and to float along the river of consciousness without our noticing them, while we direct our attention toward the river on which they are floating.”
I’ve read many books about meditation, but Keating’s “Open Mind, Open Heart” is my favorite. I’ve practiced mantra meditation for thirty-six years and can tell when someone has walked the walk of this practice, as opposed to merely talking the talk. Keating has been there and done that. He understands how the mind works and how the mind can be led to stop working.
You can get a taste for Keating’s book through these excerpts from each chapter. The basic method is wonderfully simple: pick a simple word of one or two syllables that appeals to you and mentally return to that word when you become aware of thoughts.
There’s a lot more to be said about centering prayer. Likely I will be doing just that in another post. But now I’m going to take the dog for a walk and stop thinking. I’ll replace the thoughts that have been floating along the stream of my consciousness with a single word.
That word isn’t rock-bottom reality. It brings me closer to it, though.