I've been reading the collected letters of Thomas Merton & his publisher James Laughlin which have just been published, and it's been a real pleasure to once again spend time in the company of that old monk. As you may know, the abstract image above our little altar was made by Thomas Merton, inking a stone and impressing its image onto the paper. Out in San Diego, they have a stone on the altar where a statue of the Buddha traditionally sits, and the stone on that altar is the same stone with which Merton made this impression....
Merton's life and writing remain enormously instructive. He started out as a very zealous, very spiritual monk but over the years, because he learned the nature of true practice, he gradually lost all that spirituality and sense of his own specialness and became a rather ordinary human being. One very practical idea that can be found throughout his writing is that meditation (or what he usually called contemplation) is a practice of self-emptying. And one simple technique we can practice in this regard is attention to silence. Usually we sit with an awareness of all the sounds of the world going on around us - we open ourselves to them and allow ourselves to be transparent to them - we let them simply flow through us as we sit, either without comment or judgement, or labeling the comments and judgements that arise as we just sit and listen. But today I want to suggest a somewhat different practice for you that you can try if you like - or rather what I'm going to describe is a way of sitting that you may find yourself having settled into already at different times without thinking about it. It's very simple. At the end of each breath, we pause for an infinitesimal moment and notice the space before the next breathe begins. Just that split second before we exhale and just that split second before we draw in the next inhalation. In that little gap, we may experience a moment of pure silence. And for that moment we drop everything. There is just that empty gap between breaths. If we do that for a awhile, we may find that all sorts of reactions will begin to come up. Some of the time that silence will feel deeply peaceful, and we find that we can release all our bodily tensions for that moment of letting go. But I think most of us will also find that are those moments when our bodily tensions stand out most starkly and we will suddenly be acutely aware of a tightness that we're holding onto somewhere. It's as if we've created this momentary blank screen of silence and then suddenly see projected onto it all the physical tensions we normally carry around unconsciously. And when that happens we need to just stay right there with it, being, feeling that tension in our bodies. The fact is, that as we progressively let ourselves go into silence, we also feel more acutely our resistance to letting go, our fear of loss of control, of vulnerability, of not knowing. Facing these fears is the real work of practice.