This is the first part of a presentation I gave for a recent Quiet Garden afternoon event.
Looking outside may mean looking at something…Sometimes it’s helpful to look at an object – perhaps a flower, a candle, an icon as a way of focussing and stopping all those thoughts that start to crowd in. The idea of really looking at something helps us keep other thoughts at bay.
The Buddhists call all that restless thinking and jumping around that goes on in our heads as ‘monkey mind’ because our thoughts are like monkeys in the tree tops, they leap all over the place taking us on unwanted journeys and diversions. Quite often you can start out thinking about Jesus Christ or looking at a phrase from the Bible or some religious book and before you know it you’ve moved on to supper tonight or something someone said sometime back. Our minds can take us anywhere and it seems as if it requires a lot of effort to keep it at least open to hearing the word of God. So we might try to focus on looking at something, or we could repeat a word or a phrase and this technique is the path of centring prayer. Sometime people choose a simple word like ‘love’ or ‘peace’ or a phrase or a mantra… the Jesus prayer can help here: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And when the thoughts come up well there seems a consensus that the secret is to allow these inevitable and endless thoughts to flow on their way without becoming caught up or seduced by them. Sometimes the metaphor of clouds scudding across the sky seems helpful.
Really looking and being aware is a spiritual teaching advocated by all the different traditions and the time in the Quiet Garden offers a wonderful chance to do just that. Such looking is to look beyond the concepts, ‘into the realm of the real, where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep … and you shall see.”‘
If there is awareness when looking outside then more may be revealed, we may see more in the flower, the candle or the icon that we thought we would. So what might be expected? Experiences by people who were previously blind, and, who then became sighted may offer one perspective. The accounts vary hugely with some describing how they felt oppressed by the light and associated concepts of space, and others delighting in sight and the visual world.
For example one little girl, newly able to see, is taken to a garden: ‘She is greatly astonished … stands speechless in front of the tree, which she names on taking hold of it … as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ Another account is of a twenty-two-year-old woman blind from childhood who following an operation:
‘… was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognise any objects, but, the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: “Oh God! How beautiful!”’
For Annie Dillard a writer this way of seeing is a gift and her own vision of ‘the tree with lights in it,’ the expression she adopts that was used earlier by the young girl who had her sight restored, came to Dillard as an adult when it was unsought. She describes her experience in this way:
‘Then one day I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.’
If we look then perhaps we too can catch a glimpse of the tree with the lights in it, this is a glimpse of paradise.
The way to begin to catch glimpses of paradise again is also about really looking: a question of trying to keep the eyes open and to move away from only seeing what is expected. This involves minimising if possible the editing that goes on automatically in the brain, so what you see is in part about how it is seen. But if we could really see we would see that we already live in paradise.
As Staretz Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov says, ‘We do not understand that life is paradise, for it suffices only to wish to understand it, and at once paradise will appear in front of us in its beauty.’
The recovery of paradise is always hidden in us as a possibility for paradise is ever present. ‘Here is an unspeakable secret; paradise is all around us and we do not understand it … “Wisdom”, cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.’