Welcome to my blog---an eyes-open, no-holds-barred exploration of Western and Eastern spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy and literature. A member of the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association, I lectured at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry to mental health workers for 14 years and also lectured for 16 years at the University of Technology, Sydney. My interests include the psychology of religion, transformative ritual, mythology and addiction recovery.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
LET NOTHING DISTURB YOU
Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things, Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.
This little poem of Saint Teresa of Ávila [pictured
below] was found in her breviary after her
death. Some refer to it as 'Saint Teresa's bookmark.’ Saint Teresa is one of the best-loved saints in CatholicChristianity as well as being a spiritual figure of universal appeal. She was, and remains, a giant in the
Christian mystical tradition for which I have great respect.
Now, when the word ‘mystic’ is used, some
people think of gurus, swamis, transcendental (or at least ‘altered’) states of
expanded consciousness, and all sorts of supernaturalism. Not so. As I’ve said
elsewhere, mysticism is not essentially about ‘mystical experiences’---experiences come and go---but is focused on the
lasting experience of a greater reality, leading to a transforming union with
that reality. For me, that reality is not something ‘out-of-this-world,’ but
the extraordinary in the ordinary.
A mystic is a person who is aware of their
innate oneness with all life and, in particular, with the stream of life and
the sacred ‘essence’ of life. That essence can be sensed in a beautiful sunset
or flower, the birth of a baby, and even in the loss of someone dear to us.
Yes, even the ‘dark night of the soul’ experience can be a mystical experience.
The mystic not only knows that all life is one, they feel and sense its oneness
in the deepest part of their being.
Church window at the Convent of St Teresa
Saint Teresa’s verse really speaks for
itself. Such good advice isn’t it? We trouble ourselves over so many things,
yet all things are transient, temporary and ephemeral, all things pass away
(including us). Yes, all things … except One, namely, God. Who or what is God?
Well, the word is not the thing, as Krishnamurti would say. The word ‘God’ is
just that—a word. The reality behind that word is the important thing. That
reality exists even if you do not believe in a traditional God or in any god at all for that matter. What is that reality? Well,
for one thing, it is the stream of life itself which marches on inexorably---the stream of which in which all things, including us, live and move and have their being. Things come and go, and wax and wane, but life itself is eternal and unceasing. It alone
remains when all other things disappear from view. It is more than enough. That life is all about us, and in us. It existed before we came into this world, and it will exist long after we have left this world. All we have to do in this life is to experience the reality of our being-ness as it truly is. Curiously, and almost paradoxically, the only way we can experience the very essence of life is from one moment to the next. Yes, life---also known as truth or reality---can only be experienced and known from moment to moment. It is something dynamic. It is never static.
This is where mindfulness---in effect, a secular and everyday (indeed, moment to moment) form of the mystic's 'prayer of quiet'---comes into the picture. The regular practice of mindfulness helps you
to appreciate the transience and ephemeral nature of all things on the one hand
and the permanence of the stream of life itself on the other. As we pay mindful attention ('choiceless awareness') to
life unfolding from one moment to the next we become increasingly knowingly aware
of, and acute to, the ongoing rhythm of life, its ebb and flow, its highs and
lows. (We are knowingly aware when we are aware that we are aware.) We learn to cling to nothing, for all that we cling to will eventually
pass away. True, we enjoy, even cherish, those brief, ephemeral moments of love and happiness
we have with our loved ones and friends. Those moments are all the more
precious when we come to understand that they will not last. But we must be prepared to let them go when it is time so to do.
I said above that Saint Teresa’s verse speaks
for itself. Well, almost. There’s one line which seems---at least to
me---to be a bit cryptic and seemingly misplaced. The line is, ‘Patience
obtains all things.’ What has patience got to do with the main ideas of the poem,
namely, that all things pass, God never changes, God alone suffices, so let
nothing disturb or frighten you? There is another English word that also begins
with the letter ‘p’ that comes close to what Saint Teresa meant by the word
‘patience.’ That word is perseverance, and here is something the mystic said
about that matter in some sound advice she gave to her sisters:
say that it is very important – it is everything to have a strong and firm
resolution, not to stop till we arrive at the water [union with God], come what
may, or whatever may be the consequence, or whatever it may cost us. No matter
who complains, whether I reach there or die on the way, or have not courage to
endure the troubles which I may meet with, or though the world should sink
under us ... (The Way of Perfection, Chapter XXI)
Patience. Perseverance. Resolution. No, we
are not talking about so-called will power, which is nothing more than the imposition of
one desire over all others, thus subjugating the latter. We are talking about
something closer to courage and fortitude---guts, some call it. Life is tough,
damn hard, and bloody unfair at times. We all know that to be the case. Bad things do indeed happen to good
people, assuming for the moment that any of us are truly good.
Patience---‘stick-at-it-ness’---obtains all things. What does Teresa mean by
‘all things’? Material things? Riches of a financial kind? No, nothing like
that. Those things tend only to result in further disturbance and fear. The
words ‘all things’ refer to ‘all things that truly matter’---that is, spiritual
riches, enlightenment, God. (Note, in that respect, that the very next line
says, ‘Whoever has God lacks nothing.’ Get the point?) Saint Teresa, as I see
it, is saying that if we persevere, and are diligent, single-minded and strong,
we will come to know that God---our
True Self, the very ground of our being---is One. All is One. The One is all.
The One becomes the many. We are one of the many. May we come to know that the
many are One.
We are truly patient when we know and understand in the very depth of our
being that all things pass except life itself. We are truly patient when we so
detach ourselves from the everyday ups and downs of life that we are capable of
seeing what some have called ‘the larger view,’ namely, the endless stream of life
itself of which we are ever a part. We are truly patient when we are prepared
to let go of all that holds us back, including all those little ‘false selves’
with which we so closely identify. We then experience a deep sense of life
fulfilling itself. Yes, our joys will all come to an end, as will our
sufferings. Those we love will eventually vanish from view. Even this world as
we now know it will come to an end. God---or, if you wish, life, truth, and love---alone
remains … and suffices.
Here’s another word for the type of patience
to which Teresa refers---lightness. Yes, if we would travel far, we must travel
light. That advice was given to me many decades ago by a bishop when I was confirmed in the Anglican faith. I wish I had heeded that good advice when I first received it. I might not have suffered as much, nor caused as much suffering to others, as I did.
I will finish with another little verse that