Monday, August 5, 2013: “Getting answers to my questions is not the goal of spiritual life. Living in the presence of God is the greater call.” [Henri Nouwen]

I’ve been chanting the Maha Mrtunjaya Mantra for many years. Full disclosure: it never really sang to me until now, when I begin to find an inexhaustible depth inside its sonic vehicle. Why does a mantra choose to break open inside us at a certain moment? A riddle worthy of contemplation although I’d sooner chant than puzzle it out. Mantras pulsate with consciousness that is way beyond our normal mind state. They initiate us into their mysteries. We can knock at the door until our knuckles hurt. But there will be no entry until they’re ready to receive us. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. Sometimes a decade or two of practice. As one of my teachers always said, it’s the effort that draws the grace. And there is so much grace in the practice of this mantra….

Along with chanting practice of the Maha Mrtunjaya, this week’s class was inspired by parallel readings from the Christian tradition. Here’s a morsel from the longer excerpt I read from Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. He’s writing about a life-changing meeting with Mother Teresa:

Her response startled me. I had expected her to diagnose and discuss my very pressing questions, but I suddenly realized that I had asked questions “from below” and she had given an answer “from above,” pointing me in the direction of divine presence. She knew that even if I better understood my distractions and problems, something else remained: a call to live closer to the heart of God. At first her answer didn’t seem to fit my questions, but then I began to see that her answer came from God’s place of healing and not from my place of complaints. Getting answers to my questions is not the goal of spiritual life. Living in the presence of God is the greater call…

Here’s this week’s dharma talk:

Here’s complete text of the poem from St. John of the Cross’ I Came into the Unknown, [English version by Willis Barnstone]. If you’re reading this before listening to my talk, please note that the word here translated as “science” is perhaps more closely understood as “logic” and/or rational, linear thought.

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.

I did not know the door
but when I found the way,
unknowing where I was,
I learned enormous things,
but what I felt I cannot say,
for I remained unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

It was the perfect realm
of holiness and peace.
In deepest solitude
I found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release
that I was stunned and stammering,
rising beyond all science.

I was so far inside,
so dazed and far away
my senses were released
from feelings of my own.
My mind had found a surer way:
a knowledge of unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

And he who does arrive
collapses as in sleep,
for all he knew before
now seems a lowly thing,
and so his knowledge grows so deep
that he remains unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

The higher he ascends
the darker is the wood;
it is the shadowy cloud
that clarified the night,
and so the one who understood
remains always unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge by unknowing
is such a soaring force
that scholars argue long
but never leave the ground.
Their knowledge always fails the source:
to understand unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge is supreme
crossing a blazing height;
though formal reason tries
it crumbles in the dark,
but one who would control the night
by knowledge of unknowing
will rise beyond all science.

And if you wish to hear:
the highest science leads
to an ecstatic feeling
of the most holy Being;
and from his mercy comes his deed:
to let us stay unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

Here’s text from The Cloud of Unknowing:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens….


And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.

Here’s this week’s dharana, a small exercise that plays with shifting back and forth from thinking to witness…

Much as I’d like to include this week’s chanting of the Maha Mrtunjaya Mantra, the recording quality is problematic. So I’ll include a clip from a previous post:



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