Monthly Archives: October 2017

Living with the questions that really matter: part 3

This is the final reflection on the Jacob Needleman lecture that I listened to but I so like what he says including that we tend to live in such a small part of our psyche. He showed a sense of humour when commenting though that when delving into the depths we still need to keep conscious – the saying he used was a Sufi one: ‘trust in Allah but tie your camel first’. I think here he’s confirming the importance of the ego in keeping our feet on the ground.

The current reduction of everything to mindless processes…. and that includes the reduction of nature to the so-called facts of science denies that there is something greater. The something greater is nothing to do with religious dogma but it is the opening up the heart of the mind and our inner nature attracts the search for meaning in our lives though often we block it through superficial diversions.

He is interesting about the role of money in our lives and thought that money has to be taken seriously; there are two parts to thinking about money and the first is the material part which is how we live in the physical world and acknowledging how money is seen as so important in our current culture. The second is to search and reflect on the place of money in our lives and that is spiritual and part of the search for meaning. The trick is to live in the balance and the relationship between the two parts.

When he was asked what we could all do he replied by learning what it means to listen to another person. If we really listen and are present to the other person, or I also think any other creature or living thing then we are also feeding something in ourselves and it is the beginning of love. We are he says built to give and not to get and if we give then we are fully repaid by the universe – he speaks of unconditional giving. Giving is part of the meaning of life rather than having and holding on to what we have. He quotes the gospel here that we are given much to give much and so are serving something higher than ourselves whether it’s other creatures, the earth, and nature. He’s speaking I think of a generosity of spirit which is about an attitude of mind.

Meaning comes from experiencing whether this is sorrow or joy, love or hate, we’re born to experience and each experience offers us meaning and this is what we are born for – to experience something when you know what it is all about.

In another much shorter video he spoke again about how awakened human beings are needed in the world to act for God, and that people who manifest God are in themselves proof for the existence of God. And what is God… well it is the experience of something that is timeless and infinitely benevolent. He invites us to taste God and so taste this other level in our lives.

The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
When all their silence is on fire? 

From Thomas Merton’s poem In Silence

Living with the questions that really matter: part 2

I’m returning to the interview with Jacob Needleman made in 2014 where he says that feeling real love is what we are and that that love offers us a great spiritual vision of being a human being. All the great spiritual traditions understand that we are born essentially loving and compassionate though of course terrible and destructive things will inevitably happen to shake or damage and possibly hide and even partially destroy that capacity.

We are not born for superficial happiness and pleasure though some will inevitably come our way from time to time, the current obsession with surface happiness is illusory and can only ever by definition be temporary, rather, the fundamental human motive is to have a meaningful life. Interestingly Needleman understands that a life full of suffering can paradoxically bring a deeper happiness because a suffering life can be a meaningful life. Pleasure is no substitute for meaning.

We tend to live in such a small part of our psyche and this has been the attraction of ‘new age’ (a term he dislikes) movements that have tended to come from Asia. These ideas brought spirituality (a term barely used 40-50 years ago) back to the West – with a form of religion we’d forgotten about in the West.

Every great religion has an outer/external part of them that includes ideas about reality and the universe, ritual and doctrine and social policy- that’s the doctrine and knowledge part. But the other part is to do with the inner world and about quality of experience that transcends every day experience. This inner part offers spirituality, the practice about something inside oneself and this is the deeper part that gives life real meaning.

The outer manifestation of religion can offer a sense of continuity and external support but the practice of spirituality is qualitatively different. In the West to get to the inner you had to go through the outer whilst in the East it was always more mixed. As Needleman explains ‘new age’ teachings have tended to emphasise the second inner part without necessarily referring to or going through the first – outer- part. Whilst this is appealing in this so called scientific age it can mean that ‘spirituality’ becomes superficial in some cases… it can be deep or superficial.

I particularly liked Needleman’s response when he was asked about the difference between soul and spirit. He looked at the words from early Christian writing where spirit comes from God and is the highest consciousness, while soul is consciousness in a human being that can be opened to the spirit of God. The soul is the part of ourselves that yearns and can begin to incarnate whilst the spirit is the mysterious force throughout the universe.

Closer and clearer

Than any wordy master,

Thou Inward Stranger

Whom I have never seen,

Deeper and cleaner

Than the clamorous ocean,

Seize up my silence

Hold me in Thy Hand!

From Thomas Merton’s poem Stranger

Living with the questions that really matter: part 1

It may well be twenty or so years ago that I bought a copy of Lost Christianity, a Journey of Rediscovery to the Centre of Christian Experience by Jacob Needleman.

At the time I was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, but often restless and always as I think I still am, searching … looking for something ‘more’. Perhaps I now think something that I could glimpse in the pages of this book where the author explores concepts like the soul, prayer, meditation and spirituality. Ideas ironically not always readily or easily discussed in religious circles.

Of course what he uncovered in his readings and appreciation of ancient Christian writings was that a contemplative tradition existed in the early church and it is a tradition that continues on – though not as part of the mainstream – in the lives of certain people. I see the book was first published in 1980 and then in the UK in 1993 so I was really pleased to come across Jacob Needleman’s website last week and watch a couple of interviews that he had given – one in 2014.

In that interview he discussed the questions of the heart that science cannot answer. He called these the ultimate questions, questions that everyone asks at some point in their lives and questions that are not; as he put it part of the psyche that is honoured by our society. These are questions about the existence of God; what happens after death; how to live; who am I; why is there evil; what’s it all about’ what it means to be human and our reason for existence.

Living with these questions, is, as indeed quite a few of us know, a deeply real part of ourselves. Needleman thinks that this, what he sees as the transcendent part of each person is more important than the biological, and the social because it is the real nature of reality.

As a philosopher and researcher of theologies he welcomes a deep confrontation with these questions of the heart and thinks that reflecting on them rather than denying them brings us hope of being a full human being, because such reflections, even if we don’t get to the answers, bring wisdom and meaning.

Like Carl Jung, who as well as being an analytical psychologist was also a philosopher and like Thomas Merton, a monk/philosopher/poet Needleman speaks of levels of knowing. The activation of the part of the human mind that is normally inaudible he sees as opening us up to great joy and of course inevitably greater sorrow… this he sees as ‘higher’ though we might say instead it is about being truly present and able to see things as they are…

Living with the questions and with more moments when we are present is the start of enlightenment and can act as a guide in our daily lives. This is about knowing things as they really are whereas most of the time we only know as we project our thoughts on to something or somebody else.


To the living walls,

Who are you?


Are you? Whose

Silence are you?’


From Thomas Merton’s poem In Silence

The non-communicating self

It was D. W. Winnicott who wrote about the inherent dilemma within each person between two trends: one that has an urgent need to communicate and another with the still more urgent need not to be found.  This dilemma is implicitly present in much of Thomas Merton’s writings on the self. Alongside the self you show to the world is the non-communicating self, a repository of private experience whose meaning consists in its being singularly and inalienably yours.

Here is the strange simultaneity, common to us all, of the impulse to display and to conceal, to communicate and not to be found. There is an impetus to want the world to see the singular self you are and to preserve that self from the world’s intrusive curiosity and scrutiny.

At the end of Winnicott’s paper on this matter he refers to what he names the ‘non-communicating central self’ which he believes is ‘for ever immune from the reality principle, and for ever silent’.  He considers that ‘communication is non-verbal’ and goes on to explain that:  ‘…each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound’.

I’m not clear to what extent Winnicott thought that we are conscious of this deep part of ourselves or whether we just have an intuition or vague sense of it – or not even that for some of us – but here perhaps is the deepest part of the true self only revealed at death.

Perhaps this non-communicating central self, is similar to what Merton described as ‘le point vierge’

He wrote: ‘At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.’

Merton writes about not just ‘the vast, mysterious area of our being which we call the unconscious’ [which we can know about if only to a certain extent] but also about ‘an infinitely more spiritual and metaphysical substratum’. He writes about orienting life to the discovery of one’s true spiritual self beyond the superficial enjoyments and fears.

The search for genuine personal identity whether framed through spirituality or psychoanalysis is a lifelong one: ‘Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be?’ If the search stops then we are in some ways both spiritually and psychologically dead.

Finally Merton offers this thought and advice to all involved in this quest: ‘Inside me, I quickly come to the barrier, the limit of what I am, beyond which I cannot go by myself. It is such a narrow limit and yet for years I thought it was the universe. Now I see it is nothing. Shall I go on being content with this restriction? … Desire always what is beyond and all around you, you poor sap! Want to progress and escape and expand and be emptied and vanish into God’.