Oh That Pesky Nothingness

Last week I wrote a little about being worried about attending a silent retreat which is being leadFence at The Sea Ranch by Cynthia Bourgeault. I was wrestling with the questions of “What if I find something ugly in the quiet? Without anyone there to help it look nice? Without anyone to laugh it away with me? What if I can’t deal with the Nothing?”

It’s funny when you put questions out to the universe, or the blogoverse. Sometimes they go into the void. But sometimes, perhaps when its a question of weight, or concern, sometimes you get an answer.

I was reading Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, which is also by Bourgeault, in the hopes of better understanding silent meditation. She does a great job of explaining that centering prayer, which is silent, is very different from our usual prayer in which we may speak to God in words or language. Standard prayer, which generally gives praise, bemoans hardship, or reflects on something amazing, is part of the cataphatic prayer family. It makes use of our faculties. This is how most of us grew up, praying in church or before a meal.

Centering prayer is considered apophatic prayer. It is formless, bypassing things like “reason, imagination, visualization, emotion, and memory.” In apophatic prayer, you get still and quiet; it is a more subtle means of accessing perception, and engages our “spiritual senses.” Your mind is not engaged, but your spirit is. Bourgeault likens the convergence of the self and the divine to “pieces of cloud dissolving in sunlight,” which is a quote from Rumi.

What blew me away in this (aside from a great Rumi reference) was how she then described the experience of apophatic prayer, especially in light of my fear of being along in the Nothing. “What first appears like a ‘nothing’ to us gradually begins to become filled with its own light and intelligence, and this in turn carries us closer to our own hearts and closer to that mysterious place of interpenetration at the heart of all things. This more subtle level of perceptivity can be sustained only when the denser and noisier perceptions of our usual human faculties have fallen silent.”

I am definitely enjoying the book, and really appreciate Bourgeault’s style and way with words. Centering Prayer as she describes it, while distinctly Christian, also sounds so very Taoist to me. In returning to the Tao now, I delight that the verse that falls open is the 56th one:

Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know.

Block all the passages!
Close your mouth,
cordon off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal union or the secret embrace.

One who knows this secret
is not moved by attachment of aversion,
swayed by profit or loss,
nor touched by honor or disgrace.
He is far beyond the cares of men
yet comes to hold the dearest place in their hearts.

This, therefore, is the highest state of man.