Anyone thinking about joining our Wychwood Circle discussions at this point – or seeing our poster advertising ANGER and SADNESS – could be forgiven for thinking this a strange way of Finding Happiness, or for wondering what this has to do with seeking out a moral or virtuous life, as we did in our previous book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Maybe it also seems a long way from anything to do with religion – unless to be religious means to beat ourselves up in some all-but-masochistic way.
In fact what we are about is increasing our self-knowledge, or our self-awareness – defined by Jamison as ‘attentiveness to my way of relating to people and things’. You could say we are exploring our interior world, or what Jamison calls ‘the interior landscape of our life’, in order to seek what the first Christian monks and nuns called ‘purity of heart’ but we might better describe as ‘freedom of spirit’. Jamison is not afraid to talk of ‘demons’ – which, however we understand them, assail us all at various points, even if we would never dream of using such an old-fashioned word to describe them. We may prefer ‘destructive instincts’, or ‘selfish motives’, or the need to satisfy ‘the four Fs’, but the key is to acknowledge them and learn how to deal with them in the way that – in our more rational moments – we would want to.
If these are Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, we should not be surprised when the monastic urge to contemplation or meditation arises. Is this the route to self-knowledge and ‘an interior life that is more integrated’? Many people would associate meditation with a certain self-indulgence. Doesn’t too much introspection, they might ask, smack of self-absorption? Wouldn’t it be better to go out and do some good in the world, rather than contemplate your navel and cultivate nice feelings? Certainly the phrase “Know thyself” is laden with danger as well as opportunity. Indeed another Benedictine monk once wrote a whole book with the title, Leave Your Life Alone, arguing that ‘introversion is the enemy of sanctification’. But we mustn’t misunderstand what meditation is all about.
The concept of self-knowledge occurs in a book on meditation by Laurence Freeman OSB, founder of the World Community of Christian Meditation. In his introduction to a chapter called Letting Go in his book of John Main’s Essential Writings, he begins by defining meditation as ‘the process of self-discovery’ and says that we need to ‘concentrate our whole self away from ideas about ourselves’. He goes on:
Whereas self-centredness breeds anxiety and constant insecurity, self-knowledge bring peace. This is a spiritual fruit far deeper than the ideal of mere relaxation with which a materialistic society views the techniques of religion or spirituality. Joy is the other sign of genuine self-knowledge. The joy of self-discovery results from becoming more aware of our unbounded potential. Self-knowledge is also characterised by liberty of spirit because it frees us from the prison of egotistical self-centredness.
If it is to bring freedom, peace or even joy, then it must be that meditation – through simplicity and silence, and by providing a refuge from the constant battering of sensations, thoughts and anxieties – enables us to find that ‘liberty of spirit’ and that self-forgetting which is what allows us, or maybe even leads us, to think more of others. Some will add, to think more of ‘the other’.
Mathieu Ricard in The Art of Meditation asks, Why meditate? His answer is, to transform the mind. He goes on:
Sometimes we do have moments of inner peace, of altruistic love, of deep-felt confidence, but, for the most part, these are only fleeting experiences that quickly give way to other less pleasant ones. What if we could train our minds to cultivate these wholesome moments? No doubt it would radically change our lives for the better. Wouldn't it be wonderful to become better human beings and lead lives in which we experience inner fulfilment, while also relieving the suffering of others and contributing to their well-being?
Ricard is a Buddhist monk and therefore not a theist, but the monastic way certainly includes a contemplative urge, which in Christian terms brings to mind Archbishop Rowan Williams’ sermon to the bishops in Rome in October 2012: ‘We seek [contemplation] because in this self-forgetting gazing towards the light of God in Christ we learn how to look at one another and at the whole of God’s creation.' And, as Laurence Freeman explains, ‘the Christian mystical tradition, like the wisdom of the Orient, says that self-knowledge precedes the knowledge of God. The connection between them is found in the process of self-transcendence that brings us to self-knowledge.’
In his sermon to the Roman bishops, Williams takes up the idea of freedom and turning to the other, when he says that contemplation is ‘the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.’
Which takes us back to that old-fashioned concept of purity of heart.
Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life Abbot Christopher Jamison
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life Karen Armstrong
Leave Your Life Alone Hubert van Zeller
John Main: Essential Writings Laurence Freeman
The Art of Meditation Mathieu Ricard