I'm reading
The many fingers pointing at the moon
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The many fingers pointing at the moon
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The many fingers pointing at the moon
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
1 April 2020

The many fingers pointing at the moon

Briar Hale writes that encounters with the mystical reach far and wide and back through time

Written by Briar Hale

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Growing up, pursuing a tangible experience of God was more than a weekly event. It peppered charismatic prayer meetings, loud Friday night youth events and ecstatic Sunday services at the Pentecostal church my family attended.  I was trained to believe that this mystical unity between God and humanity was somehow new, historically unique and solely contained in the Protestant tradition.

I have since left that particular Church, and although I still feel the occasional pang of sourness at some of the elements normed there, the gift that has remained with me is a deep affinity for the tangible, mystical sense of Spirit. The ‘thin places.’ For touching stones and ritual that mark our strained, difficult, glorious existences with meaning and wonder. Mysticism, as I know it now, is no new practice and the path of non-dual thinking is neither recent, nor located in one particular way.

Through the barbed gift of an anxious mind and the great task of unpacking earlier life events, I came to mystical practices as an adult. Breathwork, mindfulness, time in nature and keeping a journal have all been practical actions that gave me a way into greater union with mind and spirit. Probing deeper, I began seeking silent spaces and retreat places to find this solace, and so began a foray into the mystical, often monastic ways.

Eight years ago now, at the end of a gruelling job, I spent a week before Christmas at a rural cloistered convent. I heard about it because my elderly neighbour’s previous gardener had taken on the Eden-like property there and I was surprised to hear about a place where nuns still wore habits, but more enamored of the idea of deep seclusion and silence. I was bone-tired and sleep had been elusive for many months. I often lay awake for hours at night, exhausted but unable to rest. Here in the convent, just beyond my sweet single-quilted-bedroom was a private sanctuary, where real Catholic Sisters kept vigil day and night, in perpetual adoration. Chapel seemed to be scheduled at least eight times a day, and over the course of five days, I attended one tiny service. The nuns didn’t mind, devoted as they were to their own vocation of constant prayer. And in this space I finally found rest: sleeping deeply at night and taking lush naps by day. I couldn’t explain the atmosphere of tranquility both my body and mind experienced, except to say that it felt mystical; I was entering into the embodied space of unity. I read a lot by day, and the library held books on Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and the tales of the Carthusian and Trappists monks, kept in great castles of solitude and prayer for the world.

Winter came and I went retreating again, this time to a Zen centre in a bush valley, following the way of Thich Nhat Hanh — the Vietnamese mindfulness monk who developed his practice long before mindfulness was a thing we did on apps and heard about on podcasts on the train to work. Here in the valley, we sat on our cushions, we ate slow, walked slow, washed dishes slow, and by leaning into the power of the here and now, touched on what these monks had practiced for centuries, a great balm for the troubled, over-worked modern mind and heart. I kept reading here, learning about the ‘many fingers pointing at the moon’ — the different ways in which humanity has sought and found Spirit.

As I furthered my research into mystical lineages I read more about Islamic mysticism, most often known as Sufism. 13th and 14th century Persian Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz extolled the unity of mankind: human beings are all creatures of God regardless of what religion or land they belong to. At a similar time, the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah emerged in medieval Europe — a term already used within Judaism. The early Kabbalists adopted their title to express the belief that they were not innovating, but merely revealing the ancient hidden esoteric tradition of the Torah, the felt wonder and presence of God. The more I read, I learned that the Desert Fathers and Mothers, early Christian mystical monastics, trace their roots way back to the 2nd Century hermit St. Antony. Older still, is the Indian ‘Awakened One’, who we know as the Buddha, from around the 5th to 4th century BCE. Its practice of meditation, dhyana, is where we get Zen — the Japanese pronunciation of its Chinese translation. I hear in these many ways that those engaged in these contemplative, unifying practices are in concert with the contemplative mystical traditions of many, many faiths.

As a New Zealander, I think of te ao Māori, the Māori world and its interconnectedness — of ancestors, land, water and all living things — the felt presence in sacred spaces such as the marae ātea and during ritual like pōwhiri and tangihanga. I think too of symphonies and bush walks and pet companions and babies sleeping and all the multitude of ways we touch the divine. I still pursue a tangible experience of God, but one in which this communion is not of a historic moment, culture or dogma, but seeks to affirm unity and contemplate the wonder of our existence. Now a core practice in my own life is the contemplative silent worship I share as a Quaker. And who is described as a mystic but the 17th century founder George Fox, who saw ‘that of God in everyone’ and used his own mystic awakening as sustenance for his work as a social reformer — another finger pointing at the moon.

Briar Hale

Briar Hale is a teacher and writer based in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

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