How can I follow the path of emptiness?
If I ride my bike down the cycle path from Bull Beck
my aim is to steer into emptiness
and avoid any entanglements with the world of form.
The cycle path keeps clear of trees and hedges
but I have to stay alert to avoid walkers and their dogs
and the occasional car crossing the path.
The world of form is not fixed but shifts, always.
Riding a bike is an exercise in mindfulness.
If I allow myself to be distracted by the beauty of the Lune
running alongside the path, I may crash.
The world of form encountered at speed is painful.
I need to be aware enough of the world of form
so that I can see the gaps in it
and steer my course of emptiness through them.
If I’m too hung up on the world of form, I’ll get stuck there.
At Denny Beck I focus on the narrow gap between the posts.
If I concentrate on the posts I’m more likely to hit them.
A few miles further on at Glasson I reach the sea
where the world of form shifts again to become fluid, uniform.
In the distance sky and sea seem to merge: they are not two.
The cycle path is over, and my bicycle does not float, but it’s OK:
the path of emptiness is always empty of a destination.
Moving house feels like chaos, loosely organised.
We are moving from the familiar into the unknown.
Sitting in the new kitchen
with our friends who have helped
we are surrounded by boxes and bags
In order to enjoy a hot drink and mince pies together
we must first locate the kettle and the tea
then an oven cloth and the coasters.
All that was once there is still there
but coming into a new arrangement.
In this fresh home, life may manifest anew
and great happiness is possible.
It is a shiny dark shape emerging above the surface of the pond.
It is a creature of the depths
gifting itself to us on this day.
It waits, silky, svelte, developed for swimming,
looking at us, smiling, happy.
You wait till I summon the nerve to speak.
Your benevolence is palpable, and I find I can breathe.
‘What can we do together?’ I ask.
‘We can swim beneath the surface,’ you say.
I leave everything behind, and enter the depths with you.
I am in a misty swirling whirld of bubbles and movement
that extends for ever.
My shiny dark head emerges above the surface of the pond.
I look round, smiling, happy.
Who else is ready to enter here?
The process of our transformation is mysterious – we have to approach the unknown with courage and enter it on trust. Then who knows how we may emerge?
For Wilber followers, you may enjoy the form of this poem as a description of a movement from third person, to second, to first.
Every time I open my mouth to speak
my mind streams out into the world.
That’s just the way it is.
When you and I have a conversation
our minds hang out together in the space between us
swirling, scenting, mixing, recoiling.
I’d like to keep my mind secret.
I’d like to open my mind as wide as the world.
Those two ways are just how it is.
My mind is also a particular mixture of your minds
which stream out into the world so beautifully
every time you open your mouths.
That’s the way it is.
In Memoriam, John Armstrong 1886 -1959
One of my many births
was in the explosion of the shell
the impact of the bullets
that destroyed your leg.
Amongst the suffering and smoke and terror
a part of me came into being at that moment in the trenches.
We one-legged men are brought home to live.
The two-legged ones mostly remain to die.
My haggard face is shaped with the other maimed men
as we struggle with crutches, a pinned-up trouser leg
a false leg strapped on to a stump.
When I come home to my wife, will she recognise this broken being?
Will I ever be strong enough to leave my false leg on the floor at night
and engage with her in one-legged congress to conceive our two sons?
Will she caress my wound, will she love my stump?
Will suffering forever be etched into my life?
I can manage the forty years of pain and awkwardness
the operations to re-trim the stump
the job as a lift operator reserved for me so I can sit.
But when my older son takes his own life
from the chronic pain of his war-wound
and when my younger son, who survives six years of war in the navy
has a simple accident that leaves him paralysed for life
what can love do then, what can love do then?
One of my many deaths
was in the breaking of your heart
the refusal of your body to go on
your leaving of this life
this stream of suffering
which those of us remaining
continue to transform as best we can.
A short commentary:
Here is the story of my father’s father, losing his leg in the trenches of the first world war. But then my father’s story is in there too (he’s the one who was left paralysed by an accident). And my own story is bound up with both their lives – and all that occurred to them.
We each have a birth, but is our birth just the moment we emerge from our mother’s womb, or can we usefully consider that there we have many origins, many events that led to our existence, many ‘births’? In that case one of mine was on a battlefield in Northern France or Belgium.
I wrote this to mark the date 11.11.11. I hope I have done some small justice to the sacrifice of so many.
Do you think I want your fear?
No thanks! I have enough of my own.
So why do you ignore your fear
and let it leak out all over the place
affecting me and all these other people?
You don’t know you’re doing that?
Well yes, that’s pretty obvious to me if not to you.
How do you handle your fear?
Listen, welcome your fear and it will transform.
Ignore it and where do you think it goes?
Some of it goes into your body and makes you ill.
Some of it goes into the world;
and some of it goes into me
where it twists my guts and makes me writhe.
It’s not mine, you see: it’s not my fear
and I don’t know how to handle it.
Welcome your fear and it will transform.
And I don’t mean the object of your fear:
your neighbour, or spiders, or change,
or whatever else your fear is attached to.
That is irrelevant.
I mean your fear itself.
Welcome it bit by bit.
It is a part of you.
It is your energy and it will transform.
You are fearless, are you? I don’t think so.
There are not so many enlightened souls.
But there are many people who have convinced themselves
with enormous effort and skill
that it is out in the world
and not in themselves that their fear resides.
Your fear leaks into us all
for we are not separate from you.
I can handle my own fear but not yours.
We all leak fear.
I apologise for my own leakage.
I’m never lost when I’m in a rut: I know I’m in a rut.
No worries about where to go: I follow the rut.
No guilt about the past: I was just following the rut.
I can see the blue sky from here as well as anywhere.
I can see the fields, and the woods, and the farms.
I don’t need to wander round them to know they’re there.
I like sandy ruts with their soft collapsing sides
and muddy ruts with their pools of water and squelches.
I like hard-dried summer ruts and frozen winter ones.
There’s no shortage of variety in a rut.
Many wheels have been here before me to make this rut
and I’m grateful for their work which keeps me on track.
I think the value of getting out of a rut is over-stated.
I’m perfectly happy trundling along, thank you.
A certain kind of truth, like a certain kind of jewel
can never come gift-wrapped.
If it comes gift-wrapped it’s theirs, not yours.
A certain kind of precious stone, vital in your life
can only be found by you, looking in the hard places.
You can use maps by all means, or take advice
but the graft, the bucket work, has to be yours.
Dig around in the spiky words of your sharp acquaintance
sift through the soil as you backfill a friend’s grave
clean the stones from the soak-away of your septic tank.
A walnut kernel is hidden inside a hard brown shell
which is hidden inside a soft covering of pulpy material
which may be lying casually on the verge under a tree.
Pay particular attention to the space beyond
your likes and dislikes.
Crack open some shale and reveal a fossil.
Crack open your life and reveal the jewel.
This poem is a semi-precious stone in my life.
But, lucky you, you still get to go out and find yours.
On the farmstead of your being, is there a neglected part:
a riot of nettles, and weeds, and tangled roots
going back deep into those difficult areas of your life
which you have fenced off and ignored for years?
You know, don’t you, that the weed seeds still spread on the wind
and the briars and ground elder encroach on your garden.
On a traditional farm, this is where you bring in the pigs.
Tearing up the ground, rooting out all, transforming all,
their sensitive snouts work through every inch of soil;
weeds are paddled in, roots are consumed,
long-buried old iron-work is turfed out;
the soil is churned and manured.
How deeply are you prepared to root?
Can you find enjoyment in relentlessness?
Will you get close enough to let your long ears trail in the mud?
You know this work of transformation
and you know what will grow after it is done.
There’s some kind of cosy myth that we often tell ourselves – that meditation and spiritual development is a peaceful kind of relaxed process that dreamily leads to nirvana where all is just how it should be. I share that one, even though I also know that to make any kind of transformation possible, there’s a relentless, disciplined, thorough-going steady work process that needs to keep on going whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant (and the unpleasant bit is often the important bit). So here’s my love of, and admiration for, pigs applied to the spiritual life. May your ears too trail in the mud through the persistence of your devotion.
When I was eight I received more freedom for my birthday.
My parents gave me love and a bike
and with the one in my heart and the other under my bottom
I set off to explore.
I had already roamed as far as my legs would carry me
but my wheels and pedals took me to new streets
and past different fields and even to the library.
In distant gutters I found old matchboxes
and on November sixth I found burnt-out rockets.
I penetrated deeply into this new territory.
Beyond my limits I found an empty world
(empty of my previous life)
within which new connections swirled and formed.
At the end of each trip
I wheeled my bike through the gate
left it safely in the garage
and knew that the world was not as I had thought it.
My understanding was growing, but it was not perfect.
That bike had no gears, and my parents bought it second-hand and my uncle Jim went and got it and cycled it home for me. It was my first bike. I’ve had many since, and they all remain in my memory along with some of the trips they took me on. I guess it was me that was changing, and the bikes came along for the ride, but it didn’t feel that way. That first bike took me into new territory in a big way. And the strange thing is that new territories keep opening up, with or without bikes. All you have to do is follow the guidance and give yourself the chance to explore and be curious. A good source of guidance is the Buddhist text, ‘The heart of perfect understanding.’
When the bell sounds, I move from choice to choiceless.
I stand in line and wait.
I move towards the prepared food.
I bow, and serve myself what is there, and I am grateful.
I walk to the next available place at table, and sit.
In this I remain choiceless, and the moments unfold before me.
We sit with our food and wait.
We hear the words of the five contemplations spoken.
At the sound of the bell we bow, and eat.
In silence, the food that has been nurtured and prepared
moves from our plates to our mouths
and then further into our bodies, and we are grateful.
We eat what is there on our plates, slowly.
In all this we remain choiceless, and the moments unfold before us.
Eating meditation with others can seem strange at first – eating in silence, focussing just on the food, and on the eating. Not engaging in sociability, or conversation, or reading, or watching TV, or doing emails. But after some time it can become a very beautiful practice, transforming our relationship with food, with our bodies, and with the whole world. When we are able simply to do what is in front of us then our access to this present moment of being alive is usually a little easier.
O Lord my God
you have seen fit to send to me once more
an infection in the root of my tooth.
I thank you for your gift
and for the invasive root canal filling procedure
which I face next Friday.
Help me to accept this infection
and to take it deep into my being
so that I absorb your message
and the balance of who I am
shifts in your direction.
Help me pass on this infection
in the form of deep joy in your presence
and skilful words in this and every moment
knowing that what I do not share
will turn bad and harm us all.
Let me be grateful for my life in all its forms.
Let me be profligate with my love.
Let me infect those around me with my joy.
Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that we express gratitude each day that is a ‘non-toothache day’. When I have a toothache I plan to do this, but when I don’t have one I forget… Faced with yet more tooth trouble, I started off with a somewhat ironic remark to a traditional deity figure. But then it gets more serious – and more interesting. We’re in the Zen territory here of appreciation for all aspects of life, trying to maintain an equanimity to all events, not craving some (‘good’ ones), and avoiding others (‘bad’ ones). From this perspective we may be able to see the value and pattern of ‘infection’ and how we can impact on our own deeper health, and that of others.
I sit in a clearing in the woods and I hear the birdsong
manifest over here, and then over there.
I see a bird fly in here, and then there.
I move about in the clearing
but I am not a bird, and I am not singing.
I am in the deep capacious cavern of my mind.
I see a thought flare up briefly here, and then there.
I see my anger fire up fiercely, and then burn out.
I move about amongst the flares
but I am not a flame, and I am not burning.
I am in a backwater of the river
and I float amongst my thoughts in wonder.
The torrent of my everyday rushes past nearby
but whenever I try to swim in it
I mostly just get swept away.
I move about in the backwater
but I am not an eddy, and I am not whirling.
I move amongst my thoughts but I am not them.
Whoever I have become now, I am freer.
From the clearing, birdsong
From the cavern, flame
From the flow, swirlings
From now on, the unknown.
If we spend a deal of time looking at our mind, our internal world, it may turn out that we realise we are not quite the person we had assumed. In particular we may come to see that the river of our thoughts are a passing stream of temporary bits and pieces (though some can be very attractive bits and pieces…). In that context we may be fortunate and see more clearly what is, and welcome the unpredictability of what is to come.
You can suck at her nipple as hard as you like
but at a certain point the sweetness runs dry.
It’s time to grow up a little and move on.
There is a world out there
that is beyond breast-shaped.
You can find many places to play, and at each
you can suck in sweet air through your nostrils
and give it back with a gladsome smile.
The world with its myriad forms suckles you
but the sweetness of all will run dry one day.
Then is the time to grow up a little more
and move on beyond world-shaped
to a new place to play.
How easily do we move on to the next stage that waits for us? Are we sated with what we have had, or are we clingy with unsatisfied wants? Whichever it is, the world and life have their own requirements, and our personal preferences may be insignificant in the face of them.
So what will the next stage bring and can we remain equable whilst facing the unknown? There may be more fun than we think…
The clerk’s pen moves across the page
as we sit around her, watching in silence.
Our thoughts, our agreement
are coalescing in her consciousness
and then they are transmitted down
through her arm and hand
into these tiny complex movements
into these significant marks left upon the page.
Here is the scratching of the quill
the incising of the clay tablets
the painting of the cave wall.
Here is a moment from the swirl of the world
captured in time, set down
a clue from the past to study in the future.
Spirit moves through us always:
we can shape it in accord with love
in this moment, as best we can.
Our moving fingers write, and having writ
we move on.
In Quaker meetings for business, minutes (decisions) are drafted at the time, so that everyone can agree them. I find it soothing to sit with the others in silence while the clerk writes out the words which will be read back to us in a few moments. It encourages me to be in this moment, with my friends, while the unknown awaits us in the next moment. The clerk shapes the minute with her fingers and the pen, but all of us have a choice about how we shape any moment as it unfolds into our lives.
An apple tree in autumn
fruits hanging, falling
littering the grass beneath.
Pick an apple from the ground and bite
juicy, sharp, sweet, perfect
pecked by birds, shared with birds
pecked and perfect.
Get in touch with your inner apple tree
projects forming, poems hanging, love maturing
fresh and juicy, sweetened by the sun.
Pick the best of your fruit and offer it
to those around and those beyond
they will be nourished and sweetened.
Leave some fruit to rot on the ground
the creatures that feed on decay will like it
and you will be reminded of what awaits you.
Ah my beloved, let me sleep
stop prodding me with your smile.
I am trying to hold on to unconsciousness
but your quiet ‘wake up, wake up’
is loosening the grip of my drifting comfort.
Let me sleepwalk through my day
let me sleepwalk through my life
leave me alone with my pleasant meanderings.
If you truly loved me
you would leave me be
you would respect my space
you would let me succumb to slumber if I chose.
The clarity and brightness of your eyes
I refuse to look.
I close my eyes on you.
Where is your compassion that you
police and poke me so
with your insistent ‘wake up, wake up’?
Let me sleep on, let me sleep on.
Waking up is often hard. Being present and mindful can be difficult. Finding God within requires a certain effort. The culture around us combines with our old habits to seduce us into drowsiness… life passes by. We know what we should do but it’s easier to drift. We may not be grateful to those who would help us. If we would help someone else we should not look for immediate gratitude. True compassion does not necessarily agree with what people say they want.
On a hot autumn day I had several work meetings
and at teatime I had a meeting with Warton Crag
wandering through the woods on the limestone pavement.
Dragonflies and butterflies were present
as were leaves falling in the stillness of the soft evening sunshine.
Towards the end I came across a small hawthorn bush
leafless, wordless, emerging from the limestone
covered in thorns and dark red berries
glowing, illuminated from within.
And illuminated from without by the low red sun.
We both stood motionless in this encounter.
In the evening light I moved on from this silent meeting.
I could see the traffic glowing on the distant M6
and in the other direction the sun going down on Morecambe Bay.
Between us all there was a certain unanimity.
It’s usually easier to connect with beauty in the natural world, just as it’s usually easier to connect with our deeper selves in circumstances of peace and quiet. However we may also be able gradually to open to the beauty in all things, even those we have previously dismissed.
This poem, unusually, went through several revisions before ending up in this form. As with all forms, it only tells part of the story, but I hope even so, that it may open a little window for you.
Love and compassion will not split this log.
A cold chisel inserted in a crack
and pounded with a lump hammer
will cleave it right open.
Then the pieces will fit in the stove
and heat will be released.
Choose a tool that will do the job
and apply the necessary force.
The right words inserted with the right energy
will break open collective misunderstanding
and reveal the grain of truth.
The right practice applied to your stuck life
will split up your bundled blockages
so that their strength is diminished
and the beauty of their inner formation revealed.
The right joke inserted against the grain
will crack open the moment
with all its knots and whorls and patterns.
So, develop your insertion and pounding skills.
Or leave the log to rot.
There is a slow beauty in that.
Pilgrims walking the pilgrim route
we reach a Holy Well along the way
and see the clear water
welling up into the pool.
‘We have travelled far to meet you,’ we say.
‘And I have come far to meet you’ says the water
‘travelling slowly for many years
filtering through the darkness underground
purifying myself, clarifying myself.’
‘Now you can take me into you
and I will take you into me
and from this blissful meeting
what miracle will not come forth?’
And so we drank of the pure cold water
and took it into our bodies
and then we took off our clothes
and immersed our naked bodies in the water
springing from the ground into the pool.
And the sharpness removed our breath
and the cold took away our thoughts
and all that remained was purity and clarity
and into that liberated space
the grace of God poured infinite blessing.
At the Holy Well in Holywell in North Wales the spring is channelled into a small pool. You can get changed in a little tent and then immerse yourself in the intensity of cold, cold water, as pilgrims from an older age once did. What was that like for them? What is that like for you?