Silence and solidarity: mind the conceptual gap


Some years ago on BBC Radio 4, there was short programme about the wonderful Civilizations Choir of Antakya, Turkey. The choir includes people of Alevi, Sunni, Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish origin and performs songs and hymns in 12 different languages and dialects.

Part way through the programme, the presenter asked an Orthodox priest why he thought everyone in the choir got on so well.

He began his answer, “We all come from Abraham…”

Not an altogether surprising thing to say, you might think. The religious traditions represented in the choir all speak of Abraham as their father in faith.

Then he added, “…and the silence before him,” pointing directly to the ultimate ground of our solidarity: the silent, groundless ground of God.

We cannot be separate from God or from each other. Yet, we can spend much of our lives imagining that this is the case.

“My heart was deafened by the din of my mind,” wrote St. Augustine, putting his finger on the cause of the problem: internal mental noise deafens us to the simple, unitive song of reality.

The internal “din” that Augustine refers to is not caused by our initial thoughts, which arise and depart as naturally as waves on the surface of the sea. The “din” is caused by our reactive engagement with them, the stories we tell ourselves about our thoughts. It is this which creates the impression of solid edges and boundaries around us and sustains the conceptual gaps we erect between ourselves and God and everything.

The contemplative practice of meditation offers us a simple remedy: greet thoughts with stillness and silence.

When we notice our attention has latched on to a thought and are busily chatting to ourselves about it, we let go of whatever story we were weaving and quietly return to our practice.

The anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing offers much practical advice when it comes to minding the conceptual gaps we create.

Encouraging us to avoid getting caught up in too much thinking about our practice, he highlights the particular danger of interpreting certain words physically (literally) instead of spiritually (literarily and metaphorically) and giving rise to false dualisms (gaps) and indicators of method and progress.[1]

Writing with his characteristic blend of wisdom, directness and wit, the author advises, “Where another [person] would tell you to gather your powers and your senses altogether within yourself and worship God there, I would not tell you to do that.”

Rather, he counsels (I like to imagine a smile on his face when he wrote this), “Take care that not in any manner will you be within yourself. And also, I do not want you to be outside of yourself, and not above yourself, nor behind yourself, and not on one side nor on the other.”

The author then imagines his student asking him (very understandably), “Where then shall I be? Nowhere, according to you!”

He replies, “Now truly you speak well; for that is exactly where I would have you be. The reason is that nowhere physically is everywhere spiritually.”

If you are caught-up in too much self-conscious thinking about your practice — stop it! Be still. Be silent. Do your practice. When the conceptualising mind is quiet, conceptual gaps dissolve. The illusion of distance between us evaporates.

What should we do when our physical senses tell us we are doing nothing, because they are unable to find anything in this practice to grasp on to and feed themselves with?

“Continue doing this nothing,” the author encourages, “and do it for the love of God. Do not give up, but labour on with great effort in that nothing with a strong desire to have God whom no person can know.”

Don’t be concerned that your senses can’t sense it and you can’t get your head around it. Not being able to reason about it is a sign of its infinite nature and value. Choose what the senses and thinking mind will tell you is nowhere and nothing, the author teaches. What the “outer” aspect of ourselves calls “nothing”, the “inner” aspect of ourselves calls “All” — “for it teaches [us] to know the essence of things, both physical and spiritual, with no special attention to any one thing by itself [as separate].”

The conceptualising mind is an extraordinary gift, which can help bring us to the threshold of realising our essential union with God and each other, to the threshold of wonder. But at this threshold it must fall silent and allow love to carry us over.
God cannot be grasped by the intellect, but can be known by the heart by means of a loving intention which has been simplified and left all concepts by the doorway.[2]

As we learn to be still, to be silent, the “gaps” between us and God and everything are revealed to be mere conventions, relative perspectives. All notions of separateness break down in the simple light of awareness.

“May they all be one,” Jesus prayed: “may they be brought to completion as one.”[3]

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[1] See Chapter 68, The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Ira Progoff (Dell Publishing, 1957).
[2] See Chapter 4, ibid.
[3] John 17:20–23.

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