After his highly successful Findhorn debut last year, James Finley has brought back his unique and powerful wisdom for another special event. Many of the participants have just attended the Caroline Myss conference at which James, who is a close colleague of Caroline, also spoke. This is what Caroline has to say about her friend and colleague:
“There are many compliments that I can pay James in my introduction of him to you, but of these, the highest is that I have never witnessed another teacher captivate his audience more profoundly than James Finley. The combination of his mastery of mysticism along with his style — that of a well-seasoned and astute spiritual director and psychologist — allows James to create an unparalleled atmosphere of receptivity, essential for piercing the depths of the human soul.”
After having attended the first day of the event, I have to agree. We’re in for a real treat over the next two days as we delve into the teachings of Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic. Meister Eckhart asks, ‘What is the joy that death does not have power to destroy and how can I discover it?’ In this retreat, the teachings of Eckhart will guide us toward this deathless joy in which we come to a profound experience of God as the reality of ourselves, others and all things.
James began by warning us that this is ‘highly evocative material’ and so advised ‘to your own self be true.’ His understanding of our time together is to give us the opportunity to renew our understanding of the path on which we find ourselves. Our heart has been awakened by a desire which has brought us here. Our heart intuits that we can still go deeper and that it is a path not of our own making. We obey the call of our own heart as contemplative men and women: ‘How do I understand myself, what’s happening to me, and how can I learn to be more faithful to the call and the impediments to it?’ God, the architect of our heart, tells us that nothing less than a union with the infinite will do. A union with anything finite is not enough for us. So we’re looking for the ways we lose sight of that. We’re looking for the grace of awakening.
The paradox is that to God the union is already there. The question is the reciprocity. The infinite love is giving itself completely to us, where love comes home to itself in union. In religious traditions, this is what’s meant by the veil before death. It’s full frontal, interpenetrating union with the divine. We can realise deeply the infinite love with every beat of our heart. We’re turning to Meister Eckhart as our teacher, our guide, bringing ourselves into the presence of the mystery. We’re going to sit at his feet in the classical sense. This is Meister Eckhart 101, James said in jest, no prerequisites required. It’s extremely simple. The more childlike, patient, and slow we are, the deeper the experience.
To appreciate Eckhart spiritually, it’s good to know who he is historically. He was born in Germany in 1260. He entered the Dominican Order in 1277, at the age of 17. He studied at the University of Paris. At age 34, in 1294, he became the Prior of one house and Provincial of another. In 1300, at age 42, he was sent to Paris to teach and in 1303 was made Provincial Superior for 47 houses of Dominican Prior. By 1310, at age 50, he held the chair of the University of Paris which is a recognition of his intellectual prowess. In 1314 he went to Strasbourg to live with Dominican nuns. He gave sermons to his nuns who recorded them. He was later accused of pantheism (the belief that God can be identified with the universe, or that the universe is a manifestation of God). He died on the way to one of his trials in 1328.
Three things suggest his relevance to us:
1. He was an administrator – the path we’re going to lay out is accessible to all of us — to experience the profound oneness of God in the midst of the busy world.
2. He was a teacher, a scholar, with a trustworthy clarity, steeped in the understanding of spirituality and fidelity to his own Christian tradition. He has a spiritual way of laying bear a universal truth. He has a specificity of language that opens up the human heart.
3. He was a preacher – a spiritual master. People in his presence intuited that they were in the presence of someone whom God had deeply touched. The primary purpose of a preacher is to give living witness to the seeker that what the seeker seeks is real. Deep calls unto deep in a resonance with the listener. This is Meister Eckhart — he had been so transformed that there in his words people resonated in their own heart.
In laying out our foundations we might understand the word ‘mystic’ as someone who lives in a daily abiding awareness that although I am not God, I am not other than God either. There is a boundaryless oneness. The teachings of Meister Eckhart allow us to grow. He speaks that we might be awakened — to actualise the awakening to our true nature.
There are two aspects to his teachings:
1. He bears witness to a unitive vision of reality — to what life looks like through the awakened eyes. If you could look through clear eyes, what would you see?
2. He acknowledges our tendency not to see. We spend most of our waking hours in exile, in estrangement from this awareness. He helps us to understand these estrangements.
The first step is to slow down enough to understand your pain — this is already the process of transcending — liberation from the tyranny of what hurts ( this mysterious estrangement). Our light is the very manifestation of the God we can’t find — we’re confused. The vision of God’s indistinction from us is the very reality of us. We’re the finite creature — God is the infinite creator. Paradoxically, I am the manifestation of the mystery that is God. When two people are in love, they experience moments of oceanic consciousness in realising they are one. Although they are still two, they live by the oneness. The oneness is realised day by day in the ‘two-ness’. We distinguish in order to unite. The ‘two-ness’ is utterly permeating.
If we could all see who we really are, we’d see God, but we don’t see it, hence the sorrow and confusion. There are really two aspects to union for Eckhart: 1) the pre-existing essential union that is God’s abiding indistinction from all things as their very reality, and 2) the union to be achieved by our becoming aware, through a knowing of that presence, by the process of detaching, birthing, and breakthrough.
In God we live and move and have our being, therefore, Eckhart helps us to understand our situation. ‘How can I awaken to the already present?’ We need to have an intuitive way of understanding life. Eckhart asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be real?’ You possess within yourself reality. God is the word that we use for reality itself. There is no beginning — God is beginningless presence. Defined that way, none of us exist. Your next heartbeat belongs to God, not you, because you have no control over it. It’s a gift, but outside of that gift, we’re not at all. We don’t have the power to sustain ourselves in existence. What a precarious moment the present moment is.
God is very laidback about being God — not uptight about it at all — so released about it. Giving God away is what God is — the generosity of the infinite. Infinite love is infinitely generous. The miracle of your existence is that infinite presence gives presence away. If God were to withdraw the gift of presence, we would not be present. Apart from that you are nothing. You cannot exist. So our very presence is the presence of God.
Eckhart asks, what’s going on with us? If we’re the generosity of God, what are we worried about? What is the intimacy of my estrangement and how can I be liberated? Ultimately, the reality of torment is God manifest as torment in the world. Even that which torments has its own mystery and is a teacher.
Eckhart is not proposing any particular belief or practice. He is a teacher who teaches us to see life in a certain spiritual way and how to remedy our confusion about the nature of the life we are living. In realisation, there is abiding joy and peace. Our fear, anger, confusion arises in our estrangement. How might our eyes be opened to see that our fears have no foundation? Gently, unhurriedly, we allow the opening of this horizon.
Eckhart uses another word — image: ‘An image is not of itself; nor is it for itself.’ The working metaphor is an image in the mirror. Let’s reflect on this image. Imagine you are looking at this consciousness image in the mirror. It’s been in therapy and it lets you know that it thinks it’s progressed enough to no longer need you. ‘I can cut you loose and I’ll be fine,’ it says. You tell the image this is not so and to demonstrate your point, you move half way away so that half your image disappears. Your image goes straight back into therapy! It’s real, but it’s an image of the generosity of God — the birthless, deathless you, beyond your ego. You’re being loved right into your chair as you sit here. We imagine that we can be real without the reality that is granting us reality.
We’re all sitting here like melting candles. What is the destiny? Thomas Merton said someone’s taking really good care of you. You couldn’t have planned your life if you tried. Surely there is a benevolent path. Eckhart said the root of the problem of life is possessiveness of heart — attachment. We’re clinging to the gift as a possession — trying to own our life on our own terms — trying to possess what is always given as a gift in generosity. Why wait til the final moment of your life to give up the fight — to open to receive what cannot be explained — the generosity of God which is your life? To be unknowable to God is already too much privacy.
We need to practise detachment. Notice the vision that we’re struggling under the illusion of — who we appear to be in the eyes of others and ourself. Dispossessed of possessiveness of heart, the mystic says, ‘Look what love has done to me.’ How can we come to this childlike transparency?
Imagine a ring that has a huge gem. Without the setting it’s not a ring. You can’t wear it. So there’s a setting — the ‘What am I to do?’ A person carries within them this longing to touch the infinite. Our society does not encourage us. It’s a holy discontent. The precious gem is, ‘What am I do to?’ Once you’ve tasted the infinite, nothing else will do. With all our fragility we long for teaching that shows us the way — that sets it within a context that gives the quest meaning. God in his infinite generosity is so laidback — God gives being God away as the reality.
It’s always the mind that’s asking, ‘What is the mind?’ The mind is not a problem — it’s a mystery. Being a human being is a mystery because it’s always the answer asking the question. God responds to us in our dilemma by becoming one with our dilemma (not condemning it). God identifies with us in the preciousness of our dilemma.
The teaching goes like this: intuitively I’m like a riddle unto myself. I myself am the manifestation of the mystery — the concrete immediacy of God. God is closer to me than I am to myself and is also painfully aware of how unaware I am of this. How can I close the gap so I can realise this vision? How can that vision become the way I really experience my divinity — the preciousness of being a human being? If you were God, you’d choose to be yourself. We long to be stabilised in the realisation of the vision — in the contagious energy of awareness — ‘mystical union or bust.’
Eckhart offers us simple but lifelong guidelines:
First guideline – to realise the root issue is attachment — possessiveness of the heart — clinging to the futile effort of living life on my own terms — to become so bound up by itinerary. Although spirituality is infinitely more real than ego, spirituality is the very reality of ego. The density and intensity of ego’s illusion eclipses the capacity to experience all that we really are. Psychotherapy allows people to relax in their suffering so they can be intimate with their pain.
Second guideline – detachment from images — to have a virgin mind. What he’s saying is hard to get because it’s so fundamental. An image is a thought in the mind, so all our thoughts are images. An image we may say is a belief. He’s not saying push the reset button — it’s the attachment that’s the problem. The intensity of our belief blocks our view. Beliefs about myself, my culture, my religion, where I live, my family — the internalised repertoire of ideas about myself and the person I am. Eckhart would say, as helpful as these are in relative consciousness, no idea is you — you cannot think yourself — you are unthinkable, but not unknowable. You can learn to know yourself. We’re trapped in the idealogy of ourselves. All that we really are is beyond anything we think we are. However, we can taste the mystery of ourselves. Wean yourself off the idea of who you are. Come to terms with the futility of the effort. Practice this attitude. Don’t come to any resting place within yourself. Imagine a stone falling into a bottomless body of water and imagine you are that stone. There are protrusions falling from the cliff — the movement of the water rolls you on. This will go on through all eternity. It’s a journey that has no end and the subjectivity is you. Everything is always giving way to something that is deeper.
Third guideline – other people. Think of the people you live with. They have emotional valances (screens hiding what is beneath). There’s no such thing as a foreseeable encounter with somebody else. It’s a mystery. See everybody this way. No idea of a person will ever tell you who they are. We didn’t come here to understand each other; we came here to believe in each other. Every idea of God is infinitely less than God and therefore the extent to which we cling to any idea of God is the extent to which there is an obstacle to God. We need to have a willingness not to know God so that in the unknown we begin to know. In love-filled silence, the word God evokes from the heart the awareness of God. God is never reducible to any of our ideas of God. And it’s the same with ideas about any other person or ideas about the earth — no idea of the earth is the earth — or ideas about the universe. The universe is God’s body — it’s unthinkable, but not unknowable. The things of this earth are seductive to us. When you walk through a forest, you realise the Beloved has passed this way in haste. You see the mountains — the Beloved is the mountains.
Fourth guideline – the path of suffering. Eckhart teaches that we should always do our best to avoid suffering, to help others to avoid suffering, and to help heal suffering. Each of us has an unfinished edge of suffering in our heart — the hurting place. It’s in you and in me — the place where we taste the intimacy of our own suffering. Your suffering does not belong to you. Loneliness, for example, makes you one with all the people around the world who are lonely. This is true of all your suffering. It unites you with all who experience this suffering. God is the infinity of your suffering. To approach suffering in a sacred way is to hold it with reverence and respect. The paradox is that you do your best to avoid it while at the same time being intimate with it. Give intuitive priority to the creative stream and recognise the sacred quality in everything.
Eckhart was very aware of moments of ecstatic experience. He didn’t focus on them because he felt we could become attached to mystical experience which is sublimated ego — strategies of the ego. Rather he was trying to experience ordinary experience in a new way, to appreciate the ordinary as a manifestation of great depth. However, he also acknowledged they can be extremely helpful — to taste it you then know the experience of it. It’s no longer just a theory. It’s like a marker in your heart.
We live day by day in ego consciousness (in our intellect, memory, will), in our bodily being, the five senses which connect us with the world around us, emotions rising and falling within us. If we look at the next frame, ego experience is illumined by faith — the awareness of a presence beyond the senses — divine mystery, beyond words. Religious traditions give us a language for the mystery that transcends us, is the origin of us, and is calling us. Still, ego and its thoughts about God is still thought, memory of God is still memory, desire for God is still desire.
Next, there is a moment of spiritual awareness which is not explainable. It transcends all aspects of the ego, places you in a state of heightened awareness in which you are not thinking. Likewise with the experience of the light of the moon in its virginal newness. It’s an experience of an inner fullness that by the sheer bruteness of the mind you can’t make happen. It transcends the will; it’s beyond intellect, memory and will, and is not reducible to any thoughts or emotions. It’s oneness realised in direct experience of what faith proclaims — the sacredness of life. It’s an internal reference point, a marker in our heart, a habitual state of consciousness. What if we were not subject to the tyranny of time and lived beyond the will? What would it be like to live in the habitual awareness of love giving itself to us….?
Eckhart is saying that there are ways to detach ourselves so that the fullness can come flowing in — accepting life as it is with all its suffering. Meditation is another way we can practise detachment. To complete today’s session, James presented the basics of meditation practice from the Cloud of Unknowing written by an unknown disciple of Eckhart. We need to mature in the act of life. If we try to enter the contemplative life, we won’t be able to sustain it unless we are ready. We have to grow up, face ourselves, be ourselves, ripen ourselves in the act of living. Sometimes we are given a taste of awakening. Take one of these moments in which you are touched. Stop and think about the moment where your heart was quickened, and with your intention lift that place up. Don’t say anything, just stay there like that.
Stilled by the beauty, we freely choose to approximate the stance that awakening brought. We close our eyes or lower them to the ground, we bow at the beginning and at the end of our practice. When we bow, we give ourselves up. As contemplative men and women the least we can do is bow. We then rest our hands in our lap, sit straight, poised and alert, and we relax into the present moment. We allow slow, deep, natural breathing. With the mind, be present, open and awake, neither clinging to nor rejecting anything. You may want to explore this at home, sitting quietly with all your heart. Settle in to being present in the present moment. We’re not trying to stop thinking. In meditation, we neither think nor stop thinking. We just stay present, open and awake, just observing thought. If you watch it very carefully, it arises, it endures, and it passes away. As it arises, it gathers an energy field. Keep returning to the stance of observing thought. The goal is to discover as thoughts arise that you may see for yourself God appearing. We’re trying to taste the divinity of arising, enduring, and passing. Do the same with feelings as they arise. Simply observe. In non-judgemental compassion, return to the stance of observing.
Awareness of breathing helps some people to sustain the stance. Feel the oceanic love of God for you breath by breath. For others a word helps. This practice grounds you in the miracle of the present moment — the ungraspable miracle of being here. Wean yourself off your addiction to the storyline of who you think you are. Give yourself over to the present moment. At the completion of your meditation, express gratitude and bow.
James recommends doing this every day to establish the habit. It’s subtle. It may be helpful to meditate at the same time of day, for the same length of time, and in the same place. Choose the time of day when you are most awake and sit for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes — short enough to fit practically in to your daily schedule. It’s not a theory and it’s something we do faithfully with all our heart. You know that you are called. Throughout the day there are glimpses and flashes of something holy happening, opening to you in daily fidelity of your practice, and eventually it becomes one.
Join us tomorrow as James takes us further into the divine fullness of the birthing stage of the spiritual journey.
– Mattie Porte –
Photographer: Sverre Koxvold