A long, curious, look at the real.
Six months ago, my brother came to my place of work, St. Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, to make his first silent, individually guided, Ignatian retreat. This was his part in our decision to do a ‘retreat exchange’. This past Easter I played my part in that exchange and attended a 10-day silent Buddhist Vipassana retreat at the Dhamma Dipa centre in Herefordshire. I have to say, I felt that I had drawn the short straw in terms of challenge. Vipassana sounded far more daunting and puritanical in comparison to an Ignatian IGR…up with a gong at 4am, meditating by 4.30am, 10 ½ hours of seated meditation a day (it doesn’t matter how comfortable your meditation pillow claims to be, this is going to be painful!), no meals after 11.45am apart from some fruit and tea around 5pm, strict silence, segregation of the sexes, no reading materials, nor writing materials …and most unfamiliarly for me, no imagination, no visualisation, no paying attention to emotional or affective experience or desire. But I went, and I stayed, and I am glad I did.
I have always loved Jesuit Walter Berghardt’s description of contemplation as taking ‘a long, loving look at the real’. It captures my imagination somehow, rendering in succinct poetry a sort of prayer I am drawn to. As with most things poetic, it sounds wonderful but is a little trickier in practice. Both in my own life and prayer, and in listening to others as a spiritual director, I notice a recurring theme: a resistance to the reality of this present moment. It seems monumentally hard to look at the real at all, especially when so often the reality is not as we might like or aspire for it to be. Though in prayer and life I desire to be present, engaged, loving, generous… so often I find myself bored, distracted, hankering after some fantasy or other, judgemental, resentful… the list goes on. But the trap that is so easily fallen into is to resist the way I’m feeling or being because it doesn’t match up to my ideals or hopes. Or, more often in the Christian life, the reality of my experience doesn’t match up to some spiritual expectation – an expectation of what it means to be ‘holy’. This resistance to what is, or the alternative hankering after something other than what is, makes looking at the real, let alone loving it, distinctly challenging. I think this also makes looking at God, the Ultimate Real, challenging. What I discovered practicing Vipassana was that taking a long, curious look at the real, in a bodily way, bore a fruit: an experience of loving that real quite tangibly.
The technique of Vipassana meditation invited us to observe whatever physical bodily sensations were arising in the present moment, both painful and pleasant, and not to react to either. There was something about consciously choosing to observe the sensation rather than judge and react to it (try and avoid it, change it, resist it) that shifted my relationship to it, from one of aversion or craving, to a surprising kindliness and compassion. Importantly, that was not my intention. It was simply a fruit of observing the physical reality, as it was, not as I might like it to be. Spending roughly 100 hours (yes, I counted) over 10 days, in seated meditation, observing my own bodily sensations and consciously not reacting to them, I noticed myself feeling compassion towards my own body, and in fact my whole self, in a way that I haven’t previously.
On returning home, having set aside my Ignatian practices and ideas for the duration of the retreat, I was intrigued to see how the two did, or didn’t, fit together. On the surface they might seem quite incompatible. Ignatian spirituality invites attending to the affective stuff going on inside: emotions, desires, passions – for Ignatius these are the very language of God. We are to notice and respond to these inner stirrings, choosing those which lead to life, and resisting those which do not. Yet Vipassana is precisely about not reacting, not judging or labelling something as either ‘life-giving’ or indeed ‘life-denying’, but simply to observe, to be totally equanimous. However, it seemed to me there was some overlap.
Vipassana felt like a very embodied, physical training in what could be akin to Ignatian ‘indifference’. In Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation (his kind of description of the meaning and purpose of human life) he describes our one aim as being so ‘indifferent’ to all created things, so free in other words, that we neither desire wealth nor poverty, health nor sickness, a long life nor a short one, but rather that we desire and choose only that which leads to God’s deepening life in us. There is a radical detachment in Ignatius’ vision which felt precisely like what I was learning to do in a bodily fashion on Vipassana.
What I find fascinating is a re-ordering. Up until now, I have had the sense that this complete Ignatian indifference, or freedom from ‘disordered attachments’, comes not by striving for it, but by becoming so deeply attached to God that everything else seems to fall into place. I felt like I had to fall in love with God first and then freedom emerged – which was in fact my experience during the Spiritual Exercises. However, it seems that something about choosing just to be with whatever is in fact happening in this present moment (whether bodily or emotionally) was what enabled me to love, drew up compassion in me, enabled what Walter Berghardt described as a ‘long, loving look at the real’. Practicing Vipassana taught me to discover afresh, and more tangibly and materially, that God is indeed in ALL things – as they are. God is in the Real, indeed is what is ultimately Real. And Vipassana helped me love God in ALL those things too. In myself, my body, this body that is the world, and others.
Be still, and know me, love.
And don’t be looking for Me elsewhere,
In holy tabernacles
Or spiritual guises
Of false humility, deadly service, painfully pouring out self without Me in the pour.
In this tickle,
this strained muscle,
this stiff, tender core that runs through your torso,
choking at your throat.
Tightened. Tearful. Dry.
Be still, and look at Me, Love.
Be with Me,
Or run away
Or hide in fantasies.
Alluring as they may be, they are not Me.
Be still, and I’ll teach you, Love.
I strangled you.
For children’s giggles
and games in the garden.
Unaware how deep that metal noose would cut
and how forgiving of its stricture your beautiful skin would be
now carved deep
hosting cold, hard, foreign steel,
Still standing strong for grown up games to carry on
oblivious to your scarring.
Lo siento. I’m sorry.
by how generously you keep life-ing,
blossoming and fruiting,
standing tall and slender,
smooth bark, green with weather and time,
soft and vibrant to the touch,
You forgive me and my careless acts,
My inattention to you,
My playing at your painful expense.
You teach me, Tree, great bigness of heart.