Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done a little over 600 of them now. If this is new to you and you’d like to check out some of the previous ones, please go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and check under the past interviews menu, where you’ll see them organized in several different ways. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. If you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the website, and there’s also a page about other ways to donate if you don’t feel like using PayPal.
My guest today is Laurence Freeman. Laurence is a Benedictine monk and teacher and is director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, WCCM, a global, inclusive, contemplative community. He resides at the International Center of the WCCM at Bonnevaux Center for Peace near Paris. With Irish and English roots, he was educated by the Benedictines and studied English literature at New College, Oxford University. Before entering monastic life, he worked with the United Nations in New York in banking and journalism. Father Laurence is a monk of the Benedictine congregation of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. John Main was his teacher, and Father Laurence assisted him in establishing the foundations of the community. Laurence is the author of a number of books on meditation. He teaches meditation in religious and secular contexts and works in interfaith dialogue. He travels extensively, teaching and leading retreats and dialogues. Laurence sees meditation as opening the common ground of humanity and developing the contemplative consciousness that he believes the world today needs for its survival. And I agree with that. So welcome, Laurence.
Laurence: Thank you, Rick. Good to be with you.
Rick: And Laurence has made heroic efforts with us over the last couple of days to get his audio and video working properly, and it looks and sounds great now, so wonderful. I thought I might start by reading something that a friend of mine sent. This guy prefers to remain anonymous, but he’s met you, and he seems to have met every spiritual teacher in the 20th and 21st century. He really has gotten around over the years. But anyway, here’s what he said. “I’m really looking forward to watching Laurence Freeman’s interview. He’s an exemplar of the best of Christianity. His teacher, John Main, who he succeeds as the head of the organization that Main started, was a visionary, and their group has gotten countless Christians to explore and plumb the depths of the tradition and directly experience in themselves what Christ and the saints had experienced through the simple mantra practice.” And then I’ll just finish off what he said. He said, “If you get a chance, you could ask him about his connection with Advaita Vedanta and the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. He told me when I met him that he had been to Arunachala and was inspired by Ramana.” So that should give you something to start with.
Laurence: Well, thank you. Well, certainly the roots – well, you know, meditation itself is a universal wisdom. We find it in all the great spiritual families. And my own tradition, the Christian tradition, goes back to the teaching of Jesus on prayer and in specific terms, you know, how to meditate in this way that we teach goes back to the early Christian monks of the desert of the fourth century. But, of course, all of these roots are connected. So, if John Main, my teacher, introduced me to meditation when I was in my first year at university, he himself had been introduced to meditation before he became a monk when he was in the Far East, actually in Malaya, or Malaysia as it is now. And he was a diplomat there and went to visit a swami who was well-known in the country and recognized and revered by the authorities for his work for peace, inter-religious understanding, during a very turbulent and violent time. So, he was sent to meet Swami Satyananda, who died in the 60s, to thank him for his good work. But in the course of the conversation, he realized he was in the presence of a spiritually very profound person, so very active but also deeply contemplative. And John Main was a spiritual person, a practicing Christian. So, the conversation fell into spiritual matters and the monk asked him, “Are you a religious man, Mr. Main?” And he said, “Yes, I am. I’m a Catholic. I practice my faith.” And they started talking about prayer and then the swami described meditation, or the prayer of the heart as we could also call it. And this touched a very deep chord in John Main. It sort of echoed his own tradition of contemplative prayer, but with a vividness and actuality that he hadn’t experienced before. So, he said to the monk, “You know, could you teach me? I’m a Christian, but could you teach me to meditate?” So, the monk, of course, said, “Well,” the swami said, “Well, of course, you’ll be a better Christian if you can meditate.” So, he said, “I can only teach you if you’re serious.” So, John Main said, “Well, what does serious mean?” And he said, “Well, it means that you practice. You can practice twice a day, morning and evening, and come back if you like, once a week. We can meditate here together. And any questions you may have, we can discuss.” Anyway, that’s what happened. John Main was a very disciplined person and he integrated this way of the mantra that he was taught. He took a Christian word as his mantra, but basically practiced what we teach now, and continue to teach. And the connection with Ramana is interesting. I didn’t realize this until some years after John Main had died and his teacher had died. I got in to the successor of the swami in Malaysia, and he told me that the swami had been at a turning point in his life when he had thought about coming to Malaysia and doing the work that he ended up doing, but he wanted to have an affirmation about it. So, he went to see Ramana Maharshi and sat in his presence, asked his question, and Ramana looked at him, didn’t say anything, but he took that as an affirmation. So, you could say the roots are connected and go back a long way.
Rick: Yeah. The word “meditation” obviously has a lot of different definitions and connotations, and there are so many different practices that might be referred to as meditation, and there can be a lot of differences between them. It’s like the word “liquid,” you know, there are so many different things that are liquids, and you really don’t pin it down by just using a general phrase like that. So specifically, what do you understand meditation to be, and what’s the nature of the kind of meditation you teach as compared to other types of practices that might be called meditation?
Laurence: Well, I think you’re right. Meditation is also like the word “sport.” It covers lots of different things. And the important thing is to see what they have in common and not to get into any kind of competition and maybe at different periods when people practice in a different way, and then they’ll maybe move to a deeper practice, hopefully. So, I don’t see any sort of friction between different methods, but they are different, yes. The word itself, “meditation,” is related to “medicine,” and the prefix “med” from the Greek means “care” and “attention.” And the key word there is, well, let’s say “caring attention.” One of our community today had to go to hospital, and she just called me and said that she was receiving very good care, and the doctors and the nurses were giving her real loving attention. So, you could say that meditation is the work of attention that gives deep care to the soul. It’s not introspective or introverted or self-narcissistic, but it is about caring for oneself and paying attention to the deeper levels of ourself.
So, our way of meditation is sort of very simple, radically simple. When John Main was introduced to meditation, he practiced it, built it into his Christian prayer life. Some years later, when he became a monk, he was told to stop meditating in this way, saying the mantra. Basically, he was told, “Sit down, sit still, close your eyes, and then begin to repeat a word or a short phrase, and stay with the same word or the same phrase, repeating it continuously, not thinking about the meaning of the word, but just repeating it with a pure attention, and laying aside your thoughts as they arise.” So, this is what he practiced, and that led him, in time, after he’d been in other spheres of life as a professor of law and so on, to become a monk. This was in the 1950s, so a long time before the Beatles introduced meditation to the West. So, he was very disappointed when his novice master said, “Well, I don’t know about that, so maybe you should just stop that and go back to a Christian way of prayer.” As I say, actually, in those days, monks were obedient. So, he did that, but he said that it was like going into a desert. I mean, he obviously prayed in other ways, and he developed his monastic life and his spiritual life in other ways. But it wasn’t until 1969 or ’70 that a young American student came to the school that he was running at that time in Washington, D.C., and he was on a spiritual search of the ’60s, and said, “I’ve been all over Asia. I’ve learned meditation in 100 different places and ways, and I just wondered, does Christianity have anything corresponding to this, apart from going to church? Is there anything?” So, John Main led him, this young seeker, to go back to the roots of his own monastic tradition, to the Desert Fathers, and there in the conferences of John Cassian, who was the teacher of St. Benedict, he found what he had read before but hadn’t fully understood, two conferences on prayer. And in the second conference, number 10, on prayer, he found the mantra in the Christian tradition. And interestingly, the mantra that Cassian recommended is the phrase, “O God, come to my assistance,” “Deus Nagitorum Meum Intende,” which opens the divine office in the Christian world, the daily, regular hours of prayer.
So, I’m not sure how many monks realize this, but when you open the morning prayer, the midday prayer, the evening prayer with that verse, you are actually repeating Cassian’s mantra. But of course, they only said it once, and they said it aloud as an opening to vocal prayer. But John Main, because of his previous experience and where he was at that moment, he understood that this teaching that he’d learned many years before from the Swami was essentially the same. And that led him to pick up the thread and find the same teaching on the mantra in Christian prayer, the prayer of the heart, in many other places, of course, the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church, the Cloud of Unknowing, and so on, many other teachings on it. And so, he sort of came home, and he looked back at those 10 years or so when he had stopped meditating. He never resented it. He just said, “It brought me back to meditation on God’s terms rather than my own.” But from that moment that he began to teach it, I happened to meet him again at that critical moment when he was starting, and he introduced me to it. And he came to realize that this was a method of contemplative prayer, simple but serious, a discipline that the Western Church had lost. We simply didn’t have a method that was being taught of that kind of simplicity. So that was how it began.
Rick: I had the privilege of interviewing Father Thomas Keating years ago, and he, I think, made a somewhat similar discovery with the Centering Prayer. I think he had learned TM, and he was doing that for a while, but then he began to think, “Well, maybe this is in Christianity also.” And he did a bunch of research and came up with Centering Prayer, which is very similar to the kind of meditation he had learned, but in a more Christian context. And maybe we could conjecture here that something of this nature, some means by which we can take our attention within and settle down to kind of the bedrock of our being, the foundation of existence, really, and then come forth from there replenished with the resources that reside there, has been central to perhaps every religion, has been perhaps the experience of every great enlightened founder of any and every religion. And just towards the end of what you were saying there, you implied that, yeah, something like this had existed, but it had been lost. And I think that’s a key thing. There’s this kind of mechanics of loss and revival, loss and revival that seems to have gone on throughout history in every culture. So maybe you could comment on those thoughts.
Laurence: Yes, thank you. No, I agree. There is that cycle of losing and finding. There’s a number of parables in the Gospels that take up that theme. You know, there’s the parable of the lost sheep, and the shepherd goes off and finds it. There’s the parable of the lost coin. The woman lights a lamp and searches high and low. And then, of course, there’s the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son. And in each of those parables, as you see most fully in the prodigal son, of course, but you see that when they find what they’ve lost, they are ecstatic. They are filled with sheer joy. And they call their neighbors together, and they have a party, and they have a great time. So, I think the losing and the finding are part of a cycle that we repeat. And maybe the secret is that when you find something, you realize that you can’t hang on to it, you can’t possess it. And you may have to let go of it or lose it before you can find it again at a deeper level or with the greatest simplicity. I think that is a profound pattern of reality in the nature of reality, that there is this cycle. We could even see it reflected in the Christian model of God, the Trinity, as there is this procession coming in and going out, which is this dynamo of creation.
So, yes, I think we did lose it. And Christianity became, well, anemic and over-institutionalized. And the shadow side can take over. Now, that doesn’t mean that all Christians and all churches throughout the whole of modern history are like that. Of course not. There have been radiant examples of individuals and movements, and there’s constantly been a mystical movement within Christianity that has, at times, burst out through the repression or the oppression of the institution, like the 14th century English school of mystics and so on. So certain periods of time where usually quite a small group – it happens in Sufism as well – you’ve got a group of people within 100 years or 50 years of each other, and they spark off a flowering and a movement. And I think that’s happening today. But what’s happening today is on a bigger scale, maybe thanks to the kind of work you’re doing and the internet and the work we’re doing online, and that this can be communicated at a speed and a magnitude that’s never before really been possible.
So, we have to see ourselves, I think, as part of a flowing tradition. I’m giving a talk to a group of young people online every month at the moment, and we took the basic idea of a tradition as something that is fluid and flowing like a river, and we’re carried along by it. We receive it, and we pass it on. And I think this tradition of meditation in Christianity is like that. It was blocked, or only a little trickle was coming through. But as the institutional framework of Christianity, which was set from the 4th century when it became part of the Roman Empire and became a sort of political, materialistic to an unsatisfactory extent. So that is breaking down the old model of Christendom that was going to take over the world and civilize everybody, you know, by force. And that’s just broken down, and we’re in the middle of that deconstruction. If you look at it from one angle, it’s very sad and painful, which it is in one way. But if you look at it from another point of view, this is the Holy Spirit coming in, reminding us of what we’ve forgotten, which is what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do. And it’s reminding us too, that this isn’t only Christianity, because all religions have to go through this at the moment, I think. Yes, I think it was somebody once said that, you know, there are three elements of religion. There’s the institutional, there’s the intellectual, and there’s the mystical. But usually what does happen is that the mystical has been sidelined or repressed. I mean, you look at what Islam did to Sufism, what contemplation has often been a source of objective suspicion in the Christian world, even now. So, without the mystical element, any kind of religion begins to ossify and become hard, and its shadow side takes over. So, it’s a new kind of religion, not just a new kind of Christianity. And Christianity is necessary, because it is a major religion. It’s necessary for this renewal of religion globally. You know, think of the Dalai Lama. We’ve had dialogues with the Dalai Lama over many years, and he is, you know, the exemplar of a tradition. But he’s also a visionary of a new kind of religion and new kind of religious interaction and collaboration. So, they’re interesting times, as the Chinese say.
Rick: Yeah, right. Yeah, you know, as you were speaking, I was thinking about what we just spoke about, which is having lost and then rediscovered something. And the mystical is subtle, you know? I mean, stained-glass windows are not subtle, and big buildings are not subtle, and you can see them, you know, you can touch them. They’re concrete. But if someone is having a mystical experience, how can you even tell? They might be sitting there with their eyes closed, or they might be raking in a garden or something, and you would never know what their inner subjective state is. And so, something that’s subtle like that, you know, can easily be lost if the person dies or whatever, and nobody else is experiencing it. Or what more often than not seems to have happened is that the administrators who have taken over a religion, who are not themselves having mystical experiences, feel kind of threatened or challenged by the people who say they are, and they tend to repress or ostracize them. And that perhaps contributes to the loss of the mystical dimension of religion. Would you agree with all that? Or differ from it?
Laurence: Yes. No, I think I see what you mean. You know, we have many meditation groups that meet weekly in people’s homes and places of work, in homes, churches, and, of course, those have mushroomed as online groups in the last year. And what strikes me now, when people come to those groups, they have a short teaching, they meditate together, and the most important part of the group is that they meditate together, they have a short exchange, and then they go and do the dishes. So it isn’t that they are having rapturous mystical experiences, but I think we have to be careful what we mean by the word experience. Are we talking about an identifiable moment? Like, if I smell this beautiful rose, okay, that’s a beautiful moment. But then there is another kind of experiential layer which is growing and expanding and coming to consciousness all the time. How, we do not know. This is a parable of Jesus on the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a seed that a man took and planted in the ground, he buried it, and got up in the morning, went to bed at night, got on with his life, and all the time the seed was growing, how he did not know. So, it’s the same with meditation. I think the seed of contemplation is growing. And we maybe need to make a distinction, not a lot of radical separation, but a distinction between a contemplative consciousness that is growing out of this inner experience that is maturing and expanding, and specific mystical moments, which because they are moments, they come and go. But, of course, they may transform us in the process. I was hearing the other day about an Italian scientist, he was the man who invented the microprocessor and the touch screen. Faggin, I think his name is. I hadn’t met him, but I was very interested in what he was saying. So, he was extremely successful, extremely wealthy, had a very happy family, and was a very happy Italian. And he said, “I was always unhappy. I was always wanting something else, always driven, discontented.” And one day, he was a happy man in a way, but one day he had this experience out of the blue, lasted a few moments, of reality. And he saw, knew, understood, experienced wordlessly that all things are one. All things are flowing together and filled with the energy of love. Now the interesting thing is that he’s speaking about that as a scientist. I don’t know what the other scientists think about it. So, I think we can find a place to speak about those mystical experiences, but we shouldn’t separate that from this day-to-day work of expanding the contemplative experience. Because if he had been looking for that mystical experience, if, you know, I know you meditate as well. So, when you sit down to meditate, you said you’ve meditated every day for 50 years. So, if you do that, you don’t expect to have some rapturous experience every time you sit down to meditate.
Rick: Not rapturous, but I can say that every time I have meditated over the last 53 years, something has happened. You know, I might still be sitting thinking about something that happened during the day, or what I’m going to have for dinner, or whatever thoughts like that may come to mind. But they come to mind in the context of a shift in consciousness that has taken place as a result of meditation. And I’ve heard people criticize meditation by saying that, you know, whatever you may experience during meditation, that’s nice, but then you have to get back to daily life, and so it doesn’t do you any good later on. But that’s not true, because, you know, both mentally and neurophysiologically, transformations take place which carry over to the other 24 hours. And it’s a cumulative, progressive kind of a thing, and it just grows and grows and grows over the years. Another one of those Jesus parables was that the kingdom of heaven sneaks up like a thief in the night, I believe. And I think one can be undergoing all kinds of beautiful spiritual growth without even recognizing it, you know? Perhaps there’s nothing to contrast it with, and then sometimes there are certain moments that something happens and you realize, “Whoa, I reacted completely differently to that,” or “I haven’t gotten angry in a long time,” or some such thing. You realize that a whole lot of change has taken place that you didn’t even realize was taking place.
Laurence: Absolutely right, yes. We teach a course called Meditation and Leadership at Georgetown Business School for the last 10 years, I think. And I was not quite sure how it would work at first, because we teach exactly the same way of meditation that I described, the same way, but without the religious framework or religious language. But experientially, it’s the same, and we encourage the students to get into a daily practice. They’re MBA students, so they’re kind of in their late 20s, 30s, and most of them come to meditation because they want to de-stress, but they also are looking for something more. And they come to become more aware of what it is that they are looking for, what life is about. So, what we basically concentrate on is just saying, “Do the practice. We’ll help you get into the practice. We meditate in the class together.” They do a study of meditation, the roots of meditation, also the scientific evidence for meditation, and then we look at the effect that meditation could have on the world. If this personal transformation that takes place in you is sustained, then it is going to spill over into a transformational effect in your world and your work. So anyway, there’s been a very good, very heartening response to that. But one of the students said to me at the beginning of the course once, he was an ex-Marine, although he said there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. He said, “I am also a Marine.” So, he said, “I don’t have a religious bone in my body.” I said, “Okay, well, I hope your other bones are good.” So, I said, “Anyway, you wanted to do this course, you want to meditate?” So, he said, “Yeah, I want to. I’ve heard other people have taken the course and they got something out of it.” So, he was quite reserved. Anyway, after about two weeks, he spoke to me and he said, “I think something is happening.” So, I said, “What?” So, he said, “Well, my wife said to me, ‘Jim, you’ve got to keep meditating.'” And he said, “Why? Why did you say that?” So, she said, “Well, you’re much easier to live with, and when we talk in the evening, you listen to me. You’re not looking at your phone every five minutes, and you’re calmer.” And he said, “I began to realize, well, maybe that is true.” And he said, “Then I began to realize that I was also more patient with the other students he works with on projects.” And I’m usually a kind of a pusher and a controller, and he said, “I noticed, and they noticed, that I was different.” So anyway, he still remained as far as that. Well, at the end of the first part of the course, we give them a choice. They can do an essay on the history of meditation in the different traditions or on the scientific evidence for meditation. So, I would have thought he would certainly have done the scientific evidence, but he wrote to me and said, “I was wondering whether I could do another topic, the Dark Night of the Soul.” And I thought, where did he ever hear about the Dark Night of the Soul? He’d been Googling outside of his comfort zone. And he wrote a brilliant essay on the Dark Night of the Soul from a secular perspective. And what he said was — this might lead us into another topic if you want, but — because we make a distinction, not a separation, but a distinction between the different kinds of meditation. This comes back to a question you raised a few minutes ago. So, we make a distinction between mindfulness, mindfulness practices as they are popular today, and the practice of meditation as we teach it, which is single-pointed, and the discipline of laying aside one’s thoughts. So, we would say that the mindfulness is very helpful. It’s helped a lot of people, and one should be very grateful for it. But essentially, and as many Buddhist friends of mine, teachers have said, it’s essentially preparatory. It doesn’t exist in its own space, and you have to be careful not to make it too me-centered. But nevertheless, it can produce good results. So, we would say this is more preparatory for the deeper and more transformative work of single-pointed meditation. So, he had taken that distinction on board, and in his essay he said something I think very few priests or monks might have been able to say. He said, “If you meditate in this way, you will without a doubt go through a dark night.” Whereas the mindfulness preparation may have very good effects, but it won’t lead you into this deeper transformative experience. So, by “dark night,” he’s referring to what all the mystical traditions call the purgative stage or the purifying stage, where we occasionally, of course, find a resistance to the practice. It doesn’t mean we don’t continue to love it. If we’ve got a good support group to meditate with and a good tradition that we’re connected with, we understand that that phase is exactly that. It’s a phase and we don’t have to give up just because we have a difficult meditation.
Rick: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve encountered a lot of people like that who learn meditation because they want to lower their blood pressure or they’re feeling stressed or whatever, and that’s a perfectly legitimate reason for learning to meditate, no reason why not. But then you talk to them six months later and they’re all of a sudden getting interested in all this deeper stuff. “Okay, the blood pressure is under control, but what about Vedanta or whatever?”
Laurence: “I’m more than my blood pressure.”
Rick: Yeah, so one thing leads to the next. And I would say that’s because they’re having an experience and they want to understand that experience. And obviously there have been people throughout history who have explained that experience very nicely, and you can find them if you look around, like your friend Jim did. But the point you’re making, I guess, is that meditation is not just some kind of a non-medicinal tranquilizer or some superficial panacea or something like that. It’s as profound as profound can be, and it’s a progressive thing. So, the profundity might kind of grow on us over time as we continue the practice. In fact, you can pretty much bet on that.
Laurence: That’s right, exactly, and it goes back to what we were talking about, the different meanings of the word “experience.” There’s the progressive deepening and growing experience, level of experience, which you could say is really a development of consciousness, which changes the way we perceive the world, changes the way we feel reality or deal with good news or bad news and so on. And there are other moments where there’s a sort of a sudden, unexpected, beautiful flowering or eruption or manifestation. But the combination of that, of those two kinds of experience, is found in meaning. And I think what you’re saying, I agree with, is that what we need today desperately is meaning. And if you go on the internet, I suppose you could get caught down the rabbit hole of searching for meaning in terms of an explanation or a kind of exposure or conspiracy theories and so on. This is the meaning of it. I have a friend who has worked with the dying for all of his medical career, and he observed, of course, that some people died well and some people died painfully and in agony. And he came to realize, as others have done, that the big difference is to be found in the question of meaning. For people who have meaning in their life, he’s come to the conclusion that meaning is in the experience of connection, deep connection. Of course, ultimately, it’s not just a connection to your life’s work or the money you’ve created or the degrees you’ve accumulated or successes you’ve had. But the meaning, the connection, is with people and with yourself, your deeper self. So, anyone who is able to feel that connection, and that’s why so often when people are dying, they want to reconnect with people they’ve hurt or become alienated from. And the reconciliation, I’ve seen this in my own life too, being with family members who have been separated from and reconciled with in the last stages of their life. It’s a transformation, it’s a liberation of consciousness.
Rick: Yeah, you mentioned before we started that David Lorimer had just visited you, and David’s been on this show, and he was involved in the Scientific and Medical Network and the Galileo Commission and so on. And what they’re trying to do is sort of flip the paradigm from the predominant one, which is that we live in a material universe and somehow the brain creates consciousness and everything is random and meaningless and all that, to consciousness is actually fundamental and the universe is saturated with intelligence and everything is profoundly meaningful and so on. And I think they’re making some good progress as the tides turn. But every now and then I contemplate what life must be like for people who have that hardcore materialist perspective, you know, we don’t even have free will and everything is set, we’re just sort of automatons or biological robots or something. I don’t know how people can help but be depressed, and in fact some huge number of people are on antidepressants in this country and probably around the world. And I guess I’m just stating stuff that people already know, but I think that what we’re talking about here in terms of meditation and the deeper experience that it gives one access to is extremely relevant to this point, because you end up in your heart or in your very being living the deeper meaning of life as a result of its practice, long-term practice. And you’re just so far from the depressing perspective that tends to predominate in the materialist paradigm.
Laurence: Yes, yes. And I think the most interesting and the best scientists have all broken through into what you might call, I think Ken Wilber calls it, a mystical view of the universe. So it isn’t that the scientists who have thought and investigated and intuited their way into the vision of reality are flaky, they’ve actually penetrated something of the mystery of things. And I think it’s so: the scientists are on our side. You know, some scientists are on our side, but the materialism is a very serious and dark force that affects economics and education and politics and social media, you know, where everything is reduced to algorithms, where we find ourselves being controlled not only what to buy, but actually what we want. There are real dangerous forces and I think what you’re doing and what we’re doing in our small way in Bonnevaux and in the world community is exposing and confronting those darker forces, which are also, as you say, the cause of many of the most serious symptoms of our society and culture, the depression and the dysfunctionality and the, you know, the breakup of normal human groupings and relationships and family life and so on. So, I think there are two examples of that, as you mentioned. One is, there are two very popular books came out in the last couple of years, I think. One was by Harari on Homo Deus and Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus, very popular. So, it’s one of these books of the history of the world and comes out every 10 years or so. It puts all the most recent information together and is very interesting. Now, in his survey of global history, he has about three lines on religion. And I think almost nothing on art or Shakespeare or Bach or, you know, anything else. And religion, he interprets basically as a method of storytelling that allows economic units to cohere. So, it’s a very depressing view of religion, but that’s as I read it. I may be wrong, but that’s how I read it.
Rick: It’s interesting because Harari is a regular meditator. I don’t know what, yeah, so why doesn’t that enter into?
Laurence: Well, you can ask, you should get him on your show and ask him. I don’t know, and I’m not, I’m just making, you know, not so much personalizing it. But at the end of the book, he comes up with this sort of conclusion that the future of humanity, because we’re in a real mess, the future of humanity is going to be that we reinvent ourselves genetically. We’ve got the means of doing that now. So, we just create designer babies. I think that’s the idea. So, we recreate, and aren’t we really great now that we can do that? To me, that is a suicidal negation of humanity. Now there’s another theory, which is of course that human beings are recreating all these wonderful forms of artificial intelligence, and one day the robots will take over and human beings will be their pets. And there’s almost a kind of attractive horror in those images of the future. And I think the contemplative traditions confront that nightmare scenario, which is illusory, I believe. It confronts it, and the only way it can confront it is by rediscovering what humanity means. That our suffering, our mistakes, the dark forces in humanity are part of our evolutionary process. And that what we’re passing through at the moment is not just a crisis, a health crisis, or an economic crisis, or a political crisis. We’re passing through a dark night of the human soul as part of our evolution. We’ve been through similar things before, it must have been equally horrible. And yet something new is being born, but we have to believe in the human project and our humanity. And that’s what meditation does above all, it humanizes us. And it undoes the dehumanizing forces that we are all exposed to. That’s why we teach meditation in schools and to children and many, many other organizations too. I think that is probably the most important thing that we can do today, is to teach meditation to children.
Rick: Absolutely. And there’s another little sci-fi toy that these people like to talk about, which is somehow wiring our brains to the cloud and uploading our personalities or our knowledge or our souls or some such thing, so that we’ll live on as some kind of electronic existence after our body dies. And all these things reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are and how life works. And they’re just trying to apply this sort of superficial, mechanistic, high-tech means of fulfilling what is a natural human yearning, which is for some kind of immortal existence, some kind of profound, deep orientation to life. But it’s not going to happen through technologies or cloning babies or wiring ourselves to the Internet.
Laurence: And I think it does mean that we’ve been obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, even before the American Declaration of Independence. And we have to reexamine that. Is that what it’s about? Is it just about being happy? Or, I think it is about being happy, being fulfilled and being joyful and discovering a life of the spirit that’s overflowing our ego personalities and transforming us in the process. So, it is about being happy. But is it about pursuing happiness and restricting happiness just to this sort of ego commodity, egoic commodity that keeps us locked into the satisfaction of our desires and fantasy that grows out of that?
Rick: I think it is about pursuing happiness, actually, but the question is where are you actually going to find it? That’s the key.
Laurence: Yes, exactly. You’re not going to find it as something you take off a shelf or that you construct yourself, you know. But I think all of the great mystical traditions and at the heart of all of the great spiritual families, there is this mystical transmission and mystical contemplative practice. At the heart of them all, there is a confrontation or an encounter with the meaning of suffering. I mean, that’s at the heart of the Buddhas or the starting point for the Buddha. It’s clearly at the heart of the gospel as well. It’s not an end in itself. We don’t glorify suffering, nor do we deny its meaning. And that’s wisdom. Surely that’s what wisdom means. You know when you’re going through a hard time, you go to your grandmother and you find a wise person who will help you to go through this difficult phase so that you grow through it and you can become a more loving and compassionate person as a result.
Rick: Yeah, and you were just saying how the whole world is going through a difficult phase right now that could very well be a dark night of the soul phase. And I think the implication is that we might come out on the other side of this much wiser and more enlightened as a culture. And I think it also relates to what you were saying earlier about individual meditation, which is that if it’s deep, it’s going to elicit some kind of purification, So, some purgation of pent-up impurities or stresses or whatever we want to call them that I think everybody carries around with them. And all the spiritual traditions say that, if you really go deep enough, then all this stuff is going to loosen up and start to be released. And that’s a necessary phase if you want to actually live this deeper state permanently in the waking state, because you can’t live it if your whole mind-body system is gunked up with all these kleshas or samskaras or whatever you want to call them. But I think the whole world is gunked up, the whole collective consciousness is burdened with all kinds of deep impurities. And I’ve often thought, because various people have predicted that there’s going to be some kind of age of enlightenment coming along at some point, and I’ve thought, yeah, I feel that too. But boy, a lot of things are going to have to change. There are so many entrenched ways of doing and thinking, as you were saying, health and economics and politics, and so many different areas in business that are really not going to be able to exist in such a world if it ever arises. So how are we going to get from here to there?
Laurence: Well, good question. I think part of it is, it’s where we need the Taoist wisdom of allowing things to happen. Recognizing that, rather than just coming up with a five-year plan or a blueprint for world enlightenment or for solving all our global problems, we need to first of all find our insertion point in ourselves, and then in the flow of things. And when we are in that insertion point, and that’s the still point, that’s our self-knowledge, and that’s what I mean by contemplative consciousness. Then, when we’re in touch with that, we meet other people who are on the same search as soon as we start to do that. We bump into them. And now on the internet, of course, we bump into many of them. But that is how John Main inspired me, at the beginning of my journey, with his concept of a community of love. And he believed that meditation creates community, and I can say for the last 40 years, that’s been something I have seen happening through our communities, the spiritual family, every day. I see it here in Bonnevaux, where we just started. We started here just before COVID, and it’s now beginning to open up, and we’re beginning to be a center for that global community. But we have a little core community at the heart of it. Those ordinary people, like me, who are living a life based on meditation morning, midday, and evening, and welcoming guests and trying to live a healthy life and trying to be of service to others. So that community that meditation creates is a community of love, and it’s a community of faith, composed of people of different beliefs. And so, what can we do? I think what we need to do is to nurture, develop, and serve that growth of a community of love. Not sentimentally, but actually. And then each person in that community, or network, if you want to call it that, each person in that community has their own specific role, job, or mission to perform. And, you know, otherwise we’re all very limited, we can’t do everything. So, I think, how are we going to bring about a positive outcome to this dark night? I think we don’t know, and we don’t know what the collateral damage may be. What we can take confidence in, I think, is that there is something positive we can do. By remaining in that transformative work of meditation and living out the consequences of that through the network, the community, the sense of connection that grows out of it, and finding what you’ve got to do. So, you’re doing that with this program, and I’m doing it with whatever I’m doing here. So, then all of these things become connected meaningfully. The next step, I think, is try and put together leaders from different fields of expertise who understand what we’re talking about. And many of them do, but they haven’t quite found the way of expressing that in their work, whether that’s in politics, or in business, or in medicine, or in education, or in social services, or environmental action, all of those things. But if we can bring some of those leaders together, I think something would happen. There would be a resurgence of consciousness that would come through the work they’re doing already. So, identifying and supporting those leaders, we’re actually putting together a group. We have a group every Friday of one line of leaders, business and other politics, and other groups that meet to meditate together just for an hour every week. And they come. We have 50 or 60 come every week. You know, most of them very busy people. It’s very important for them, that moment of connection. And so anyway, we’re thinking of putting together a smaller group of thinkers and leaders in those different fields to share with each other, first of all, how they think a contemplative consciousness can be brought to bear upon the crises that are unfolding in all of the different fields. Does that make sense?
Rick: Yeah, it makes sense. Your bandwidth choked up a little bit. Yeah, you know, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was, in a somewhat muddled way, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And since I had been meditating for a year or two, I began thinking, “Well, you know, consciousness is really the most fundamental thing.” I wouldn’t have been able to express it as clearly then as I can now. But, the more fundamental a level at which I can work, the more leverage I’ll have in terms of having an influence, you know? And so, I decided to become a meditation teacher to try to get more people to experience consciousness. And I felt like that might have a ripple effect throughout society, or more and more people kind of watering the roots of the tree will enable the tree to flourish, rather than a whole lot of people monkeying around trying to water the branches, which is not from where the tree gets its nourishment. And that’s been my orientation over these years. And I think that it sounds like that’s your orientation, but I think what you’re saying also about the leaders is a good one, because leaders, by definition, are influential. And we need more leaders who might be inspired to get those within their sphere of influence to look deeper for the solutions to life and to meditate and to develop their full inner potential. So, I think you have to work on both levels. And it seems like that’s what you’re doing and what others are doing, like with the David Lynch Foundation and some of these other organizations also, as you’re saying, that are trying to get meditation into the schools and the prisons. Well, prisons are important, but especially the schools, because the kids, that’s the time to catch them and enable them to grow into their full potential as they progress through their education. So, I mean, compared to what was going on in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I think this whole thing has become huge, and it’s become mainstream to a great extent, and it continues to gain momentum. And it gives me optimism, despite all the dire predictions of what could happen to the world and might happen still, but I’m optimistic that somehow this upwelling of spirituality around the world, this shift in collective consciousness that it is triggering, will save the day and will somehow result in the concrete solutions to the concrete problems that beset us, such as climate change.
Laurence: I think so, and we’re coming up for another climate change conference in Glasgow in November. We’re going to be involved in that in a small way at the consciousness level. And I think we shouldn’t be frightened of making a direct connection, maybe not a functional one, but a direct connection between the contemplative experience of silence, stillness, and simplicity, which is what we practice, nurture, and develop in each meditation we do. So, that contemplative work, we don’t need to be frightened of connecting that to the work that is necessary to heal the world. And that means facing the problems that the world faces. The United States has been through this, I don’t know, last four or five years of political pantomime, which wasn’t just funny, I mean, it was terrible.
Rick: We wore out the mute button on our TV over the last four years.
Laurence: You know, the good news is, I suppose, that American capacity to reinvent itself and hope.
Rick: You know what Winston Churchill said, don’t you? Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after having tried every other alternative.
Laurence: Well, we’ve got British politics at the wheel, we don’t want to get into politics too much. I think, but so, that’s the good news. And the democratic structure in the United States seemed to have been strong enough to withstand this onslaught of barbarism. There was a moral philosopher who wrote a book about the loss of the moral consensus that took place, you know, in modernity. And he compared it to an imaginary situation in which people had decided to abolish science because it had done so much harm. They abolished all science and destroyed all records of science. And then later archaeologists were digging up little remnants of the past scientific era, including, you know, instruction books on how to use your microwave, little things like that. So, they started to piece together what they thought was the scientific culture that they vaguely remembered. So, he compared that very powerfully, I thought, to the sort of moral universe we live in now, because the coherent moral universe has disentangled itself. And we haven’t yet found a unifying vision for what goodness is. So, then he describes this and he says, what happened, people say we’re moving into a new dark age. And at the end of the Roman Empire, the barbarians were massing on the frontiers, waiting to break into the old empire. And he said, whether that’s a good comparison or not with our time is a matter of opinion, but he said it’s possible to see that actually this has already happened, that we have been governed by the barbarians for a long time without knowing it. So, I think we need to be really serious about accepting the fact that even now, after the last American election, tens of millions of Americans are convinced that the election was stolen. And this delusion, this delusory state of consciousness is on a massive scale. So, I think we can’t just say we’ll just meditate and everything will be okay. We have to see the connection between our meditation, the community of love that it generates, and the world which needs healing.
Rick: This brings up an interesting point, a couple of interesting points. Was it you? I was listening to something recently and somebody was quoting a Tibetan proverb or something that, “Sometime soon the whole world will go crazy, but the few sane people will be perceived as crazy by the crazy people.” Was that you or was there something else that I got that from?
Laurence: Well, a slight correction to your source.
Rick: Yes, please.
Laurence: It may have been me, because you said you were reading some of my stuff or listening to it. No, it’s actually a saying from the Desert Fathers, the early Christian monks. And St. Anthony of the Desert, who was this archetypal first monk, gathers his disciples and he says, “The day is coming when the world will go crazy. And then, when the people meet a sane person, they will point to him and say, ‘He is crazy because he’s not like us.'”
Rick: Right, yeah, that’s the quote. And so, another thought, you just said “triggered.” You know, here where I live, there are a lot of people who have been meditating for decades, and at least half a dozen of them that I know of went to the January 6th insurrection event. And reportedly, some of these people even routinely carry guns now. Now, we’re talking about people who have been meditating for decades, so that raises an interesting question. And that is that, maybe it depends on the kind of meditation, but it might beg the question, can meditation alone ensure moral clarity or ethical sensibility or clear thinking? I mean, there are also a lot of people in town who are saying COVID is a hoax and vaccines are going to kill everybody and stuff like that, which I think is wrong. So, I’ve just kind of been fascinated in recent months with the issue of ethical integrity in the spiritual community. And in fact, I helped found an organization about that. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that and what might be needed to supplement a contemplative or meditation practice to assure that people’s discernment and discriminative abilities grow apace with their development of consciousness.
Laurence: Yes, well, the Dalai Lama gave us a seminar some years ago called the Good Heart Seminar, where he commented on the Gospels. He was very brave of him to do that. I don’t know many Christian leaders of his level who would agree to comment on Buddhist scriptures without knowing them in detail. But in one of these dialogues that came out of the Good Heart, somebody asked a similar question about meditation. And he kind of laughed and he said, well, you know, many people in the West think that I sit like this. And I sit nicely on my cushion. I close my eyes and that’s it. I’m meditating. He said, you know, it’s more than that. So, what we were saying a few minutes ago is also relevant that we need to understand what prepares us for meditation. What is the practice of meditation that we want to build into our daily lives until it comes to the point where it does become part of our life? And then it produces the fruits as it were by itself. How we do not know, it produces it and we see it as we were talking earlier. So, there’s a doctor in our community who’s actually giving us a series of brilliant talks on contemplative medicine at the moment and a monthly series. And he, and I, with him, we introduced meditation into the Irish medical community some years ago. And I heard him speak to a group of doctors once and he said, when I began to meditate, the problem was meditating twice a day. Now, he says, the problem is if I don’t meditate twice a day.
Rick: In other words, he doesn’t feel so good if he skips it, you mean?
Laurence: That’s right. Yes. So, the idea of virtue or ethical integrity and so on that you were mentioning, I think we maybe need to go back to the Greeks who saw virtue as being the result of excellence. Whatever you do, do it well. And if you do it well, it will produce benefits for others. I’ve been working with this idea of good work recently and wrote a little book about it. And it seemed to me, you know, bringing meditation into the workplace, where people spend most of their lives. So. If you think of good work as work that brings out the best in you and will produce benefits for others. So, that’s virtue. That’s doing something with excellence. And of course, it needs to be. It needs to be. It’s not like, falsifying your corporation’s tax claims or inciting a race riot or the invasion of the Capitol building. So those cannot by definition be virtuous or excellent because they are creating suffering and division and all the things that we generally recognize as being harmful. I think we may need to make another distinction about the effects of meditation. In the light of your question about whether it produces ethical virtue or ethical integrity, we need to make a distinction between the benefits that meditation brings that you can measure. So, your blood pressure, your addiction problems are reducing and your level of anger, uncontrollable anger is decreasing. You’re sleeping better at night. So, these are identifiable benefits and measurable. But there’s another kind of influence or effect of meditation, which is the fruits. And the fruits are more organic. They come from deeper roots. And actually, the Dhammapada, the Buddhist text and the letter to the Galatians by St. Paul use almost the same words to describe the fruits of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control. And then Paul says there is no law dealing with such things as these. So, it isn’t that the benefits are not important, that you can sleep better at night and your blood pressure is under control. Good. But it’s the fruits that really make for a fuller and happier human life. But I just add one thing. These are not two completely separate entities. The benefits are, as it were, the visible sign of the fruits. Does that make sense?
Laurence: So, there’s a theological concept in Christianity that grace works on nature. And the more I think about that, the less I am comfortable, I haven’t been comfortable for a long time really, with this concept of the supernatural. Because maybe a better approach to it is to understand what nature actually is and expand our understanding of the mysteries of nature and of God’s presence in nature.
Laurence: Okay, so then you can link what is on the surface with what is growing deep within you. So, the fruits of the Spirit are actually the life of God, the life of the Spirit burgeoning in your humanity. And that’s what gives sense to this mantra of the early Christian teachers, “God became human so that human beings might become God.” And we can see the whole of life as a divinization process, and meditation as a kind of catalyst that makes us aware of that.
Rick: There are several good points in there I want to expand on with you. The one about supernatural, if Christ walked on water, for instance, that might be thought of as supernatural. But I would say that it’s no more supernatural than a jet plane might appear to be to an Aborigine or somebody who had never seen one. The jet plane is just utilizing laws of nature that the Aborigine didn’t understand. And like that, if Christ actually walked on water or did many other things he was said to have done, he somehow was able to tap into deeper mechanics of nature’s functioning that apparently human beings have access to. And he said, “All these things I do, you’ll do even greater things.” But he was just kind of a unique individual in that ability at that time, although there are records of other people doing similar things in many cultures. So that’s kind of a side point to our whole discussion, but I just wanted to comment on that since you raised it. Do you want to say anything more before I go on?
Laurence: Yeah, briefly. I think that’s a very interesting point because it does also give us a point of contact with this materialism, scientism, which is still a very, very powerful force, maybe a latent force, but still a very powerful force. So, I have a friend who’s an herbalist in Ireland who, apart from his encyclopedic knowledge of herbs, he has a gift for diagnosis. And I’ve sent people to him with real problems that they’ve been having medical tests for weeks or months. And he’s been able to quietly, modestly see what’s the problem and how the symptoms are linked up. I mean, that’s a gift. And I met many doctors who have met him and know that he has this gift, diagnosis gift, diagnostic gift. I mean, actually some time ago we had a water diviner, a dowser, came here to Bonnevaux to check on our lake because we need to keep our lake filled and we wanted to know where the water supply was coming from. And so, she had this gift of feeling the energy lines and knowing where the water was. And I had another Irish friend who had the same gift. So, are they supernatural? No, I don’t think so. It’s not supernatural. It’s just a gift. It’s like, I can’t paint. If I see somebody who paints. Is that a supernatural gift? No, it’s their gift. It’s their particular gift. So as far as Jesus is concerned, Jesus always diverted attention from the miracles that he worked. He didn’t base his teaching or his authority on these miracles. And the miracles of healing were expressions of his, as it were, uncontrollable compassion. His heart went out to people and he connected with them where they suffered, where they were suffering. And every one of those stories explains that dynamic, you know. So again, going back to the Dalai Lama commenting on the Gospels, we gave him the passage of the Transfiguration, where Jesus is illuminated, physically transfigured into light, a being of light, in front of a small group of his close disciples.
Rick: After the resurrection, right?
Laurence: No, no, no, this is before the resurrection, actually. Yeah, it’s celebrated as a feast in the Catholic Church on August the 6th, which is also the date where another big flash of light exploded in 1945, which is Hiroshima. So anyway, no, this was a moment of illumination or transfiguration into light. So, most commentaries on that would say this is symbolic, this is describing who Jesus is and how he is and so on. But the Dalai Lama didn’t have any problem in accepting the literalness of that. And coming from a Tibetan tradition of wisdom and of understanding how mind and matter interact, he explained that or talked about that with reverence. We, as perhaps with our excessive left brain and scientism and materialism, bring up questions like, did this really happen and what is this, is this fake and that sort of thing. And the questions that we are obsessed with about those out of the ordinary experiences are often the wrong questions. So, we get the wrong answers as well.
Rick: Well, his tradition, Dalai Lama’s tradition, is full of stories of light bodies and rainbow bodies and all kinds of things like that. And, you know, I mean, I sometimes think, you know, what the world might be like if everybody were enlightened or 90% of the people or some such thing. And I think there would be all kinds of extraordinary things going on that right now we would consider to be remarkable, but then would be the norm. If anybody made a big fuss about it, someone might say, well, why are you carrying on? This is normal.
Laurence: There’s a great description of the vision of God at the end of St. Augustine’s City of God. And this idea of what’s it going to be like in heaven. As a child, even, I thought, I don’t really want to go to heaven. You know, life is interesting and beautiful. But just to go to heaven and be sitting in church all day and looking at God on his throne, it gets a bit boring after a few millennia. And then I read in St. Augustine, the vision of God, which is the goal of humanity. This is not as if you have to reinvent your DNA or genetically modify yourself or surrender yourself to your computer or your robot. You know, humanity is much more than that. Anyway, what he says is the vision of God is not all of the people of the world looking up at God on the stage, but they turn towards each other and they see God in each other. And when they see God in each other, they are filled with joy, bliss, fulfillment. And when you look at me and you see me filled with that joy, you are filled with joy because I’m joyful. When I look at you, I see you’re joyful because I’m joyful and I’m joyful because you’re joyful because I’m joyful.
Rick: You get a feedback loop.
Laurence: You get the feedback effect, yes. I mean, that’s a better way of looking at it. And we get glimpses of that in the community of love. We get glimpses of it in all human encounters of compassion and justice and sacrifice and love.
Rick: What was that quote you said a few minutes ago, “God became man so man could become God”?
Laurence: That’s right, yes.
Rick: I think probably some Christians would hear that and consider it blasphemous, maybe, would they?
Laurence: Well, they might, but then they would need to go back to school and read the Fathers of the Church in the first four centuries. Read St. Athanasius. It was a repeat, and it was exactly expressed in those terms. It wasn’t, “Man will become like God,” but “Humanity will become God.” Even St. Peter says in the first letter of St. Peter, “We shall share when we develop, when we mature, when we get enlightened,” whatever. “We will then share in the very being of God himself.”
Rick: Yeah. Let’s dwell on this one for a bit. I mean, my understanding of God, and perhaps you can reference a scripture quote, is that God is omniscient, but also omnipotent and omnipresent. So, there aren’t any holes in God. Wherever you might go in the universe, big or small, near or far, God is there. So, God doesn’t come into a place, he’s already there. There’s a great story. This is a story that Maharshi Yogi’s teacher told, or a story about him. He was a very advanced spiritual soul from a very young age, and when he came to the ashram in the Himalayas, where he studied under his teacher, the other disciples were becoming jealous of him because he was so much brighter than they were. So, the teacher sent him away to live in some cave that wasn’t too far from there. And after he had been there for some time, the teacher said to one of his disciples, “Go check with that boy to see if there’s any place empty, because I want to come there for a while.” And so they went, and he said, “No, sorry, there’s no place empty.” And he said, “Don’t you realize this is a great insult? You can’t say that. There’s got to be some place.” He said, “No, you’re just the messenger, and please send back the message, ‘There’s no place here that’s empty.'” And so, he went back, and there was this big uproar in the ashram of, “Oh, what is the teacher going to say when this impudent young man says this to him?” And so, the message was related to him, and so the teacher said, “Well, call him here. I want to have him explain what he meant by that.” So, they sent for him, and he came. And when he came, the teacher said, “Well, you said this, and what did you mean?” He said, “Well, you know, I am so full of your presence, and so full of the presence of God. If I had known that you wanted to come a second time, I would have left some little space empty that you could have entered. But as it is, it’s complete fullness, and so there’s no space for you to come again.” So that reminds me of the nature of God.
Laurence: Yeah, it’s beautiful. But that fullness has to be…
Laurence: Well, yes, but it has to be integrated with emptiness, doesn’t it? Emptiness is fullness, fullness is emptiness. So, the Greek word for empty is kenosis. So, the Buddhist idea of emptiness as one of the constituent features of reality, that nothing has a sort of permanent, solid identity separate from anything else, that is mirrored in two ways in the Christian scriptures. One is kenosis, the idea of emptying, and God, in the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, God empties himself in order to pour himself fully into the person of Jesus. But then in the life of Jesus, and we see a human translation of that act of kenosis happening in how he lives and teaches and dies eventually, and that emptying then produces the pleroma, which is fullness. So, I think one can certainly say God is fullness. But for us to be able to understand or get into that fullness, I think we have to build into that understanding the experience of self-emptiness.
Rick: Yeah, it’s the old Zen tea story where the master keeps pouring the tea and the cup is overflowing, and the student says, “What are you doing?” And he says, “Well, you know, there’s already enough tea,” and he just says, “You have to be empty before I can really fill your cup,” or something like that.
Laurence: Yeah, a paradox, a paradox. There are two ways of speaking about all of the stuff we’ve been speaking about. One is cataphatic, where we can say precise and logically coherent things about God or reality or meditation. But there is another side, the other hemisphere of the brain, perhaps, which is the apophatic, at which we say, “Well, actually, yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.” Anything we say about God, for example, has to be surrendered, really, into that apophatic humility of saying the mind, as the cloud of unknowing says, “We can never know God by thought. We can never know God by drawing a picture or by making a definition.” So, there is this dance, really, between these two ways of perceiving, just as there is between fullness and emptiness.
Rick: Yeah, and this discussion goes back thousands of years. I mean, they have the whole shunyavada, which is the emptiness branch, and then purnavada, the fullness branch, and these people have been debating this and so on. I really think both are true, it’s just a matter of perspective on it.
Laurence: It is, and this is, you know, it sounds as if maybe people think “they’re getting a bit abstract and over-ethereal at this point.” I don’t think so, because every daily cycle of meditation brings that flow or that cycle of emptiness and fullness into our personal experience. We know that’s happening all the time.
Rick: There’s an old saying, “God dwells within you as you,” and similar to that thing, you said, “God became man so man could become God.” And I think sometimes people react to this as blasphemous because they think that you’re saying that Rick Archer is going to say, “I am God,” or Laurence Freeman. And that’s absolutely obviously not the case. We’re talking about, I don’t want to say eliminating any sense of individuality, because I think you need one to function, but kind of tuning into the unbounded fullness that is within you and that also permeates everything. Like the ocean that has a little individual wave on it, and you are the individual, you are a wave, yes, but you are also the ocean, and the two don’t negate one another. So anyway, I’m getting a little windy here, but I think the point we want to make here is that one can realize God, but not as an objective thing that you perceive apart from yourself.
Laurence: Well, this is it. This is the heart of it. Again, it’s one of the early Christian teachers, St. Irenaeus, said, “We can never know God as an object. We can only know God by participating in his own self-knowledge.”
Laurence: That’s an amazing statement. We have to share. So, what does it mean to share in the self-knowledge of God? And our key into that is our own self-knowledge.
Rick: And isn’t there a Meister Eckert quote that is very similar to that? Do you have that one at your fingertips?
Laurence: There should be.
Rick: Similar idea, anyway.
Laurence: Well, self-knowledge is a very major theme, of course, in Christian mysticism, in all of them. And I think that’s why, you know, I wrote a book called “Jesus, the Teacher Within,” which is all about one question that Jesus asks. He’s sitting, praying alone in the company of his disciples. That’s the phrase, praying alone in the company of his disciples. And then he turns to them and he says, “Who do people say I am?” And some of them say, “Oh, some people say you’re Elijah, come back from the dead, or you’re this or you’re that.” And he doesn’t give any response to those answers. And then he looks at them and he says, “But who do you say I am?” And then Peter, who usually is the first person to jump in, and usually gets it wrong, but on this occasion, he got it right. He said, “You are the Christ,” and so on. And again, Jesus doesn’t comment on that. And at that point, the next thing he says is, “You have to lose yourself if you are to find yourself. Let go of all your possessions. So, enter into that poverty of spirit,” which is another aspect of emptiness. So, I think that question that he asks, “Who do you say I am?” He’s not asking this because he wants to get the right answer. What does that question do to us if we listen to it? It makes us, it brings us to the great question of Ramana, “Who am I?” And that’s the great question of humanity, isn’t it? It’s the question of human meaning, “Who am I?” And it’s the question that we’re not just speculating on in meditation, but we are actually living that question.
Rick: There’s a Gita verse that the Enlightened see all beings in the self, and the self in all beings. And so, Christ would have seen, looking at his disciples, the self in them as it is in him. I mean, it’s the very same divinity. There’s basically only one of us. And then we have our individual expressions in addition to that.
Laurence: Well, unity and diversity, isn’t it? That’s the big philosophical problem. Why is there such diversity, and how did diversity come out of unity, and how do they relate, or how do they combine? And that’s paradox. And we can’t answer that question at the same level at which we ask it. We have to move to another level, a non-dual consciousness, in which what seems like a contradiction and nonsense to the merely rational mind, actually is exposed as the truth, which is a mystery. Not in the sense that it’s something vague and inconclusive, but mystery is the experience of reality in its wholeness that we can’t reduce to a description or an explanation.
Rick: A couple of questions came in, let me ask them. This is from Wesley in Salem, Oregon. He said, “I’d like to hear your reflections on the missing years of Jesus as a youth. What was he up to? What does the absence of these years in the Gospels tell us?” He has a second question, but I’ll let you do that one first.
Laurence: I don’t know, because there’s nothing written about those missing years.
Rick: There are stories of Him having gone to India and things, but who knows?
Laurence: They came later. There was once a monastery in Ladakh, high up in the Himalayas, and I was chatting with some of the monks, and this taxi drew up, come up from Leh, and this group of Italian seekers and tourists jumped out. They came up very excited, and they asked one of the monks, “Can we go into the library?” And the monks were not going to be hassled by this, so they said, “No, it’s not possible.” And they said, “Why?” He said, “Well, the librarian is away, and he’s got the key.” So, then they said, “Okay, well, when will he be back?” “Maybe two years.” So, their faces dropped, they looked absolutely crestfallen. So, I said to them, “Why are you here? Why is it so exciting to go to the library?” They said, “Isn’t that why you’re here? Because there’s a book here that shows that Jesus came here and studied in His missing years.” I think they’re stories, and I would say, perhaps the most important part of the stories is asking, “What do the stories tell us? What do these stories tell us?” Not about the facts, because we don’t know the facts. I’m quite happy with the idea that Jesus was working as a carpenter in Nazareth, and studying His tradition, and praying, and coming to know Himself. And at the right moment, He stepped out of that life. I prefer that idea to the idea that He was on the mystic trail to the East.
Rick: Yeah, could have been. I really don’t have any skin in the game. I don’t know what happened, but whatever it was, He was a remarkable person. Okay, so there’s a second question from Wesley. “Any thoughts on reincarnation? Am I wrong to read a notional understanding of reincarnation in the Bible? Jesus saying John was Elijah, the disciples saying Jesus might have been Elijah, Jeremiah, etc.
Laurence: Well, the question that Ramana asks when people ask him about reincarnation is, “Who is reincarnated?” And that’s the key question. When the Dalai Lama was given the text about describing the resurrection of Jesus, he read it carefully, and he said, “Well, this is something different.” He said, “This is not resuscitation, and this is not reincarnation.” So, my understanding of reincarnation is that what is reincarnated? Obviously, all energy is constantly being recycled, nothing is wasted. Is there more energy being created than there was at the beginning? It could be, because it’s coming out of the divine infinity. But so, all energy is being recycled, and even, you know, you probably look like your father. I look like my father and mother, and so we are recycled, and in terms of our genes and our personalities even to some degree, and yet we’re different. So that’s how I would understand reincarnation. But in my understanding, resurrection or ultimate liberation, as some of the other traditions would call it, or liberation or nirvana, is actually stepping outside of the cycle of birth and rebirth. So, there’s clearly birth and rebirth happening all the time, every day. But resurrection is building up the momentum, it boosts you out of that cycle. And that’s what the Gospels are describing in terms of the resurrection. And interestingly, though, you see the scriptures, the Christian scriptures say, the experience of the resurrection sent the disciples back to live this life in a new way. So, that’s how I would make a distinction or see a connection between reincarnation and final liberation or resurrection. And as the Tibetans, of course, can conceive more than some of the other Buddhist traditions of the possibility of achieving that liberation in one lifetime, even, and later with the help, with the grace of the guru. So, I would say that when we say in the Christian language that Jesus takes away the sins of the world, he’s talking about the same idea of the burning up of karma, which comes about through the grace of the guru, through the grace of God. And that affects us in our own capacity to live this life in a new way, maybe make it in one lifetime.
Rick: Yogananda said in his autobiography that, in his understanding, reincarnation had been part of Christianity, but that it got edited out at the Council of Nicaea, rather clumsily because various references are still in the Bible, because the authorities at the time thought that it would provide too much latitude for people if they thought that they could take lifetimes to reach their spiritual goal, and they really need to get on with it and achieve it in this lifetime.
Laurence: Yeah, yes. But I think there was a lot of debate about reincarnation, even Augustine and Origen, for example, say, “Well, this may explain some of the features of reality that we are familiar with.” So, they left that question kind of open, and it wasn’t as if it was the most important question on the table, but it was an interesting question about human reality. And then the Council said, “Okay, look, we’ve got to solve this once and for all, so we close this topic,” which isn’t the best way of dealing with an open question, just to say, “Stop talking about it.” But I don’t think the question of reincarnation is, if we understand it in the way that Ramana makes us think about it, “who is reincarnated,” and we think about it also in terms of what we know about genetic realities and physical similarities, it’s the higher question and goal is the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Rick: Yeah, exactly. Someone once asked Maharishi Mahesh Yogi what he thought about reincarnation, and he said, “I’m opposed to it.” But I think where Ramana is taking it, he’s taking it beyond the level of individuality, because he’s saying, “Well, you’re not an individual in the first place, so why talk about an individual taking multiple bodies?” Get beyond that, and you’ll realize what’s ultimately the reality. But I think in the relative sense, well, we don’t have to get into a debate about it. You mentioned the word “important,” I think it is kind of important in a way to understand the mechanics of creation, the mechanics of life, and if that is the way it works, then I think understanding that could make a difference in one’s whole orientation to life and spiritual practice. It answers a lot of questions, like, why would somebody be born with a deformity or something like that, and somebody not, and all kinds of things.
Laurence: I must admit, I have never been convinced, I’ve never been able to meet a Buddhist teacher who has explained that to me. That may be my limitation of understanding what they really mean by it. And I think it’s much more. There was an English football player a few years ago who became a very unpopular person for a while, because one of his teammates had a child born with a deformity, and his teammate said, “Well, that’s because he must have had bad karma.”
Rick: It can get cruel, kind of.
Laurence: I think, oh, yes, but I think if you look at it, why is it necessary to have an explanation? Because we want one. I think the real question is, what happens to people when they die who don’t seem to have made much spiritual progress in their life? So, do they just get thrown in the rubbish heap, or what happens? It’s a very urgent question because I think we would all feel, well, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be ready for it. So, I think there are two explanations. One is offered by reincarnation. The other in the Christian world was offered by purgatory. And purgatory is a doctrine that was badly, badly applied in order to raise money, by the medieval church, but the purgatory was this doctrine about the continuation in the next life, which is separate from time and space as we know it, so you can’t measure it. So, this, in the next life, the process of sanctification, purification, enlightenment continues in another way. And that could be in the blink of an eye. I mean, these are hypothetical, we don’t know.
Rick: So, it’s kind of like reincarnation, except that you’re going to do it in a different realm rather than in a different body on earth.
Rick: There’s a guy named Ian Stevenson, and he’s been succeeded by a fellow, I think his name is Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia, who researched and interviewed a couple of thousand kids, young kids who remembered past lives. And he looked up the records, the kid would name the battleship that his plane had taken off from and who his friends’ names were and all that kind of thing, and found evidence of what the kid was saying. Or perhaps he would have gone to the town where the kid said he once lived, and he’d take the kid there and he would recognize people and know things. And even the Dalai Lama, they identified that he was a Dalai Lama because he could recognize certain artifacts that supposedly he had last time around. But anyway, we’re getting a little bit off on this tangent, but it’s interesting. It’s like, why do we want to know whether the Higgs boson exists or not? Well, because we’re human beings and we’re curious about how the creation works, and so, we built the Large Hadron Collider to find out.
Laurence: And the Higgs boson and all of these things are metaphors, brilliant at the time, and they sort of open one door, but then they also show us how many other doors there are. Not one of them is a final answer.
Rick: Yeah, that’s a good way of leaving it. Okay, so this might be a good time to actually have a little meditation. Somebody sent in a question, somebody named Matthew, asking, “Is there a best way to meditate for beginners so as to have a good meditation?” And perhaps you could answer that by actually conducting one, if you wish.
Laurence: Okay. Yes, so the important thing, I think, with meditation is to see that you are always a beginner. And by getting into that frame of mind, you simplify meditation for yourself, and you also discover that meditation is simple and is about simplicity. And simplicity doesn’t mean easy. Simplicity means wholeness or oneness. So, you could say meditation is this work of integration, of becoming whole, of realizing our oneness. So, we teach meditation in this sense of simplicity with a very simple practice. So, if you like, we can take a few minutes to meditate. So, the first thing is, in meditation, we, as it were, get out of the head or we let go of our thoughts. And we’ve been busy the last hour or so, a couple of hours, sharing thoughts. But at the time of meditation, we lay aside the whole of that stream of consciousness, whether it is good thoughts or bad thoughts, whether you’re exploring the nature of God, of your self-knowledge, or whether you are turning over and over again in your mind negative patterns of fear and of desire or fantasy and guilt or shame or whatever. So, the stream of consciousness that is constantly flowing through one level of our minds, we simply lay aside the contents of that. And we do that, not by fighting our thoughts, but by taking the attention off our thoughts. And so, the work of meditation is a repetitive process, like many creative things, there’s a repetitive nature to it. So, the repetitive nature is that we are laying aside our thoughts, good or bad, as they arise. How do we do that? There’s a very simple and universal method I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, which is to take a single word, a mantra, sacred word, prayer word, and to repeat this word or phrase continually in the mind and heart. We stay with the same word during the meditation and indeed from one meditation to the next. And that allows, over time and practice, for the mantra to sink more deeply into the heart level of consciousness. And then we could describe this journey of meditation then as the journey from the mind into the heart or bringing the mind into the heart. And that’s why we’ll find over time with practice that the mind becomes calmer and the distractions, the thoughts become less, not always, but they become less intrusive and less of a problem. So, the more we can approach it, I think, with the simplicity of this practice, the more we’ll find that happening by itself. So, choosing the word is important because, as I said, we stay with the same word, and it’s helpful to be given a word or to take a word from your own tradition. It’s helpful if the word is not in your own language because then it doesn’t immediately stimulate thought and imagination. Meditation is not what you think. So, the word we recommend is the word “maranatha.” It’s not the only word you could take, but the sound of the word and the fact that it’s actually an Aramaic word that means “come Lord,” but we’re not thinking about the meaning of it as we say it. But the sound of the word is helpful. The four syllables also help you to say it in a rhythmic way. So, if you take that word, you would say it as four syllables, “ma-ra-na-tha,” “ma-ra-na-tha.” You can integrate it, as many people do, with their breathing. You could say the mantra as you breathe in, “ma-ra-na-tha,” and breathe out in silence. Or you could say the first two syllables, “ma-ra,” as you breathe in, and “na-tha,” as you breathe out, whichever is comfortable for you. The important thing is not to become too self-conscious about it as a technique, but to get into it, and you’ll find that with some practice, it will become much more natural. The other thing is, it’s not about forcing yourself to say it continuously, because you will become constantly interrupted by your thoughts and distractions. That’s the nature of the game. If we didn’t have distractions, we wouldn’t need to meditate. So, don’t be discouraged by your distractions. Just see them as natural. And the real work of meditation and the real benefits come from returning to the mantra. So, don’t see the distractions as a defeat, but see your returning to the mantra after you’ve been distracted as the positive work that you’re doing. So, it’s not about doing it perfectly, but it’s about doing it faithfully. So, that means we can approach it in a less ego-controlled kind of way, trying to be perfect and successful. That may take a bit of time, because we bring those habits of mind to everything we do, even meditation.
Rick: And should it be effortless?
Laurence: Well, it will become more and more effortless, yes. You could say that there are three stages. Not necessarily linear, but there are three stages. The first stage at which you’re saying the mantra, but you’re constantly being interrupted by your thoughts. That can be discouraging, and many people give up. So, hang out with some other people and meditate with them, and you’ll find that you’ll overcome that discouragement or you start again. So, saying the mantra. The second stage is where you’re sounding it. Now you’re using less effort. You’re still, as it were, putting yourself into it, but it’s less of an effort. It’s becoming more natural and intuitive. And the third stage is this point where the mantra is more established, more rooted, and becomes a principle of harmony in you at all levels of consciousness. It’s where you listen to the mantra. And listening to the mantra means your attention is coming off yourself. And then in God’s own time, you are led into complete silence. But as soon as you say, “Oh, I have no thoughts. That’s it. I look out at the sky here, and at the sky, there are no clouds in the sky. I have no thoughts in my mind.” But the thought, “I have no thoughts,” is a thought. Now, that doesn’t mean that you are saying the mantra with the same degree of effort that you were at the beginning, but there’s a qualitative change in the subtlety and the gentleness, really, with which you’re saying the mantra. But it’s leading you into that deeper experience of silence. What you’re doing in meditation is strengthening the muscle of attention, which is pretty weak in us culturally because we haven’t trained our attention very well. So, the benefits that come from meditation come directly, as I mentioned, with that story about the marine, is that we realize that we carry the stronger muscle of attention into all of the activities of life with a more presence, with more open, and so on. So, we’re using, of course, when we start, we have to make a certain effort to make the time available for it, early morning, early evening are the best times. You can integrate them into other practices, spiritual practices you may have. And if you don’t, then you just try to hook it into some regular passive or daily routine, and that’s a good way of building a habit. So, but basically, the elements of this, sit down with your back straight. That enables you to be alert and awake, but be comfortable. So, you want to be alert and relaxed. Relax your shoulders. Relax the muscles of your face, your jaw, your forehead. Put your hands on your knees so your body feels harmonious and balanced, comfortable and alert. And take a moment of preparation, a little preparation of watching your breath, being aware of your breath as you breathe in, breathe in the gift of life. But it’s a gift, so you have to let go, the fullness and the emptiness we were talking about. We fill our lungs and then we empty our lungs, and these are two aspects of breathing. So, just be aware of your breath, the cycle of breath. And give your attention to that. So, you’re taking a first step in meditation by taking the attention off your thoughts. To give yourself a little more weight, as it were, to go deeper, we take the mantra. And we begin to repeat the mantra in our mind, in our heart, gently without force. Attentively, this is the only thing we have to pay attention to. And simply without analyzing what’s happening, like a child, “unless you become like a little child,” Jesus said. So, physically prepared, I’ll just time it for, how long should we meditate for, Rick?
Rick: Just three minutes maybe or something, if that seems right to you.
Laurence: That’s fine. So, what I’ll do is use our WCCM app, which is very nice. Which has a little bell sound. So, we’ll meditate for three minutes. So, sit as still as you can, because the stillness of body will help to bring you to a stillness of mind. Don’t fight your thoughts, but let them go. And when you find that you have become distracted, let go of the thought and return to your word. The word I would recommend is the word “maranatha”. Ma-ra-na-tha. Ma-ra-na-tha. [bell sound] [bell sound] [bell sound] [bell sound] [bell sound] [bell sound] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [silence] [bell sound] [bell sound] [bell sound] So, let’s end with these few words from the Gospel of Luke. They asked him, “When will the kingdom of heaven come?” He replied, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of heaven will come. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘There it is’ because in fact, the kingdom of heaven is within you. The kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” [silence]
Rick: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I presume you have online courses where people can get more involved instruction and follow up with their questions and all that?
Laurence: Yes. If you go to the website, wccm.org, which is a new one that we’ve just redesigned. It’s very good and up-to-date and easy to navigate. You’ll find some online courses that you can introduce, will introduce you to meditation. You’ll find a lot of different resources to help you go deeper and to keep your practice going and to enter into dialogue. And there’s also online groups that you can join. And there are on the Bonnevaux program, which is our retreat center here, and we’re open for retreats. We’re just about to open up here little by little after the pandemic, but we’re opening up now. If you go to the wccm.org site, you’ll find a link to Bonnevaux, and you’ll see there also the online programs and later the physical retreats that we have happening here, retreats and other online events, seminars, webinars. So, there’s quite a lot coming out of this very simple teaching.
Rick: Yeah, and I’ll be linking to both those websites from your page on batgap.com. And I might add that you have some nice videos on YouTube already, which I’ve been listening to over the week. Some interesting conversations you’ve had with the Dalai Lama and with – his name is slipping my mind now. That’s Alan Wallace. That’s right, Alan Wallace. Fascinating conversations. So, there’s a wealth of information for people to dip into, and I’ll also link to your books from your page on batgap.com. How many books have you written all together?
Laurence: How many grains of sand on the seashore?
Rick: Not as many as the stars in the universe.
Laurence: I think about maybe 10 or 12 of different kinds, different lengths.
Rick: I’ll link to a few of those.
Laurence: I also do a daily email called Daily Wisdom, and I like it because I take the photographs. So, there’s a photograph every day and then a short text, and one of our team, Leo in Brazil, who’s the director of communications, puts them together and chooses the photo, and I never know what it’s going to be. So, I’m always very keen early morning to look and see which photograph is used. So that’s something that people find helpful. It gives you a little nudge during the day or the beginning of the day. I think it’s designed to go out early in the morning in different time zones. There’s that, and then we do a quarterly newsletter, which is also online, which gives news of the national – there are 67 national communities now with that organization around the world, and they’re held together as a community of love. So, whatever part of the world you’re in, I think you can probably connect with a physical manifestation as well.
Rick: Great. Well, thanks for all you’re doing. There’s a story of Krishna saving the villagers by holding up a mountain to protect them from Indra’s rainstorm, and the villagers became concerned that he might strain his wrist or something, So, they all picked up sticks and helped to hold the mountain. So, we’re all holding up our sticks, and ultimately God is doing it all, but it’s a nice role to play.
Laurence: It is, and I thank you for the work you’re doing, which is very diverse and enriching and very generous, the amount of time you give to it. So, I’m sure it brings benefits to many people, and I hope people will find something useful in the time we’ve spent talking.
Rick: Oh, I think they will, and I encourage people to see links on Father Laurence’s Batgap page. Follow those links and look through his websites and see what you can plug into. So, thank you all for listening or watching, and thank you, Father Laurence, for taking the time to do this. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and having this conversation with you.
Laurence: It’s been a pleasure to meet you more, and good blessings on your future work.
Rick: Thank you. You too. We’ll be in touch.
Laurence: Bye now.