This month is offered for conversation and enquiry. While there is no formally predetermined topic, we hope to address the current state of the school, spiritually and materially, and to enquire as to the best approach to our own studentship, on the one hand, and the funding and sustaining of the place on the other. It calls for a contemplative approach but must be addressed honestly and courageously.
Here are notes on some of the conversations up to August 14th, compiled by Robin Thomson
Wednesday, 1 August 2018
To kick off, what is the best manner of our being here? Often, despite our efforts to practice presence, we find ourselves preoccupied with the temporal and material business of the place, which dominates over our simple presence and participation here. Additionally, many of us come and go between Chisholme and our outside lives, and there is a real perceived shift involved, one that requires effort to maintain freshness in both worlds.
As for those of us who have been students for a number of years, how do we keep our approach fresh and not impose on the current situation? Can we come here with all of ourselves and leave with all of ourselves? Can we allow the present situation to be, without comparing it to past situations, and thereby allow both newcomers and old hands to learn? Meanwhile what is the gift and wisdom that the many ‘old hands’ can bring? Surely the older generations cannot see the same vision as the young, who see keenly what is now; but the old have gifts of experience and wisdom that can complement the young vision, provided it is offered wisely.
The different ‘generations’ of students – measured along the axis of the school’s history rather than the specific ages of each person – will see different priorities and values for the school. The requirements have changed over that period. When Bulent was alive, his presence defined most of the activities. Subsequently the school was held by a principal, a situation that required a different approach, and today there is no principal, only a body of people, a collective, that strives to keep the place open and available for potential students. Because of these differences, ‘handing over’ the school to the next generation is not a simple matter.
This opening session was thus a gathering of many questions. What roles are required in the school today, in organisational and educational terms? And how rigidly or loosely need they be implemented? To what extent do we rely on tradition and to what extent do we seek innovation? We see innovation all around us, even in changes to our dietary preferences, well within our own lifetimes. Yet innovation that is merely contrived has little point, while that which arises from a place of vision must be responded to.
Ultimately, can any of us know the full potential of this place? Can any of us be fully up to that, perfected in order to support that potential perfectly? No, clearly not. But, recognising this, we can perhaps approach our tasks, our roles and our studentship more lightly and more freely, and in this way what is necessary can make itself known.
Thursday, August 2nd 2018
Today's conversation started with the question: 'In the phrase ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful’, what is meant by compassion and mercy? And more generally, why do we say this apparently ritualistic invocation, for example at the start of meals?
A lively conversation ensued. Compassion is perhaps that all-encompassing quality that allows all other qualities to become and express their realities; mercy, while not unconnected, has a more private aspect to do with the ripening of one who seeks self-knowledge. As for the purpose our invoking the Real by these names: in doing so we affirm and reference the singular Being that is our being, turning away from our illusory selves; we give thanks for what is to be – in this case, sustenance, on which our lives depend, while also reminding ourselves of the eucharistic nature of gathering to eat. Perhaps we affirm our ultimate contingency (dependency) on Being itself.
These attempts to answer the question, however, were only half of the conversation. Of no less importance was the fact that this question had arisen when it did, and that the person who asked it was moved to do so at the start of this month of enquiry. The question is an expression of our studentship, in a learning environment in which there are no formal teachers, yet in which teaching can arise where it will among us. In turn our studentship expresses our dependency, for we cannot own knowledge and can only receive what is given.
The starting point of the enquiry concerns our proper studentship and presence, and the best way in which the school can be sustained. Thus it is surely a gift to us to be able to begin from the very approach, the very intention that we set at the beginning of any undertaking – yet which, left unexamined, deteriorates to ritual or even superstition. Surely the short answer to a question of how to approach the school and its running would be ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful’!
Wednesday August 8th
Conversation today was a meditation on the nature of knowledge, our relationship to knowledge, how knowledge is known in us and where it is known. It was striking because the room was full, with a range of people from students of long standing to visitors here for their first day, and all contributed.
We are informed by things of themselves, like an artist drawing a still life, learning the form from the subject. ‘Knowledge is subject to the known’. Ultimately, to know is to be aware, that is, it is a condition of being, and that being can be again known deeply in us as that single Reality (or Being) knowing itself. This is where knowledge of the self, or self-knowledge, is realised. And knowledge is relationship to the known.
‘Everything is beloved. Until the lover knows that all is beloved, he/she is a corpse.’ So our state in unawareness is corpse-like in a sense, until we are opened up to the constant wonders of what we call a mundane experience. Mundane only because of unawareness. However, the sense of being a ‘corpse’ might also come from one who has known the Beloved and knows now that everything he/she is and has been has come to dust, for that is the fate of man.
We can be moved by peak experiences – when something profound happens, numinous, something is tasted. We can try to keep that experience in mind. But often we miss out, habitually, on the constant revelations all around us all the time. As a former student once wrote, ‘Today is an ordinary day. That is, a day in which many extraordinary things are happening and nobody notices.’
Thursday August 9th
What can we take with us when we move on from the school? What will sustain and nourish us and keep us close?
This is a rather general question, and there is no single practice or action that can be prescribed. Nor can what we take away survive if it is only an idea. Thoughts about ‘oneness’ will be tested to destruction by the world and its contradictions, because thoughts can never be large enough to embrace and comprehend oneness and the contradictions it includes. Rather, we trust and hope that we can find in ourselves a level of being that is not thought but real sentiment, that can see itself and know itself despite the contradictions and relish them.
How does this happen in us?
Oneness is not an abstract thing; in the world, in us, we can come to know it as a relationship of love, and there are practical things which we can do to establish this relationship, and to nurture it. They cannot be prescribed – what each one of us takes away when we leave Chisholme, and how we are with what we have learned, is private and up to us to decide.
Meditation, and by implication prayer, are core practices at the School. Both can be a huge help in our daily lives and, as Bulent explains so beautifully in his paper on Prayer and Meditation (see below), the best of ways is to let them be one.
Of course there is also the daily striving to learn, allowing life to inform us in all its modes and being informed by our own changing states. And embracing the contradictions: we are on a journey, yet there is nowhere to go.
Someone said: I’ve had to travel a long way to come here for this week, and I didn’t really want to; it’s hard, it’s tiring at my age. I am used to living in my comfort zone.
But I asked myself: what is the most important thing in my life?
And then I knew I had to come!
I’ve also wondered about service – what’s the best kind of service? To me, it is to have clarity, to ask for clarity. Clarity shows me what is important, what it is I really want.
...and stillness – listening to silence is very important!
Someone offered the image of the ‘subway’ – a busy public place that we don’t tend to associate with a contemplative atmosphere. From one point of view the quiet calm of Chisholme and the rough and tumble of the world are not different in their reality, yet as aspects they are different.
A noisy and crowded subway is a challenging environment.
And yet, we can practice awareness no matter where we are; there is space and stillness, even on a busy commuter train.
And there is the sense of simply waking up to the extraordinary in the everyday and being present to it.
Helpful reading: Bulent’s paper on ‘Prayer and Mediation’.
Friday August 10th
What makes this school unique?
Do all roads lead to the same destination?
Among the many traditions, paths and schools, what is special about this one?
From one point of view, each person has his or her personal way to realisation (or salvation, or knowledge), and all are equally valid. The same is true of the traditions and ways all over the world and throughout history. Yet there is another perspective, in which Reality may reveal Itself to Itself, in this place we call ‘us’. This way is in conformity to the Real’s own ‘preference’, and requires us to relinquish our own inclinations to a greater or lesser extent. (‘Greater or lesser’ because someone who wishes for this to be their way may discover that their real, underlying preference is for this, greater than their previous understanding.) Perhaps it is a characteristic of this time that this essential orientation be found and adopted by mankind.
As for the details on the ground, what is it we value most about Chisholme?
Might it be some or all of the following:
– the deep and detailed metaphysics, which becomes the foundation for everything we learn at this School. How can one summarise it? Could one call it a metaphysic of love, which outlines the role and position of humanity and which is so completely and beautifully expressed in the works of Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi?
– the explicit invitation to mystery, yet in a way that is lived in the here and now of practical life?
– the possibility of speech arising from silence, and a language of the heart that informs through taste and gives reality to speech and conversation?
– the invitation to let go of preconceptions and assumptions and submit to another way, a wider vision?
– the daily situation of living, working and practicing together and what is learned from it, and from every detail of that life?
– the intention for a specific and concentrated atmosphere of contemplation and presence, in which real education can take place?
– freedom from a tradition or order limited by time, place or culture, in which the Real is invited to manifest Itself in the individual hearts and the hearts to respond individually to that one request?
Perhaps it is that the courses (and hopefully the broader situation) places the sincere student in a context that represents the true place of the human, ‘between the two worlds’ – between the attributes of the divine and those of the created world, at once reflecting the divine image and dispensing over the creation, while participating in both. This is something we read about in metaphysical texts, and perhaps the school enables this role to be recognised in us so that we can be educated according to it.
Monday, August 13th
We visited the questions that we are seeking to address in this month of conversation:
– the best approach to the financial and practical sustenance of the school and its students
– this year’s ongoing review and quest to be informed as to the right way forward for the place and its people in all senses, both interior and exterior.
Since the material aspects are wholly an aspect of the overall holding of the school, they can be discussed with confidence and trust while not deviating from the overall request to be informed. They are not in any real sense ‘other’ than more interior aspects. Our conversation, if we come to it cleanly, can address these matters in the knowledge that it is held by the real and in response to our intention.
The topic of practice arose again:
Conversation, at its best, is a practice.
An urgent practice for this time is that of keeping everything clean – i.e. one of Bulent’s ‘Four Pills’. This ‘keeping things clean’ applies to all actions, from innermost thoughts to worldly and financial dealings. It follows on from the ‘first pill’, that of accepting that there is only one absolute, as also are the requirements not to harm anybody and to be helpful to everybody.
Later on in the morning, we read the ‘Esoteric exposition of Finance’ written by Bulent Rauf in 1986. This proposes that the world we experience can be described in terms of three ‘Souls’ – the Finance Soul, the Scientific Soul and the Spiritual Soul, each contemplating the Universe. Only by accommodating all three is the full scope of life to be comprehended.
The paper is 30 years old and was written in a different financial climate from today’s. Today the world of finance exposes extremes of disparity and injustice. Greed and uncleanliness are rife in many financial systems. It is a profound paper, but also quite difficult and we did not have the time to go deeply into it.
However we explored how the ‘economy of lack’ is a reaction and not the reality: and that in spite of appearances the principle acting in the universe is complete and unconditional generosity.
Tuesday, August 14th
Today we considered publicity – how do we keep existing friends and students up to date, and how do we make Chisholme be known more widely, so that whoever might benefit can find out about it.
We had to agree that it is difficult to communicate the essential Beshara – this invitation which is for mankind and for each one of us, that the Real, God, the One, is the Self of all existence. This is not, after all, like simply advertising a product or even an idea, and has to address that part in us that can truly hear and respond to this invitation. It appears that most people who come to Chisholme, come as a result of personal contacts and face to face conversations, and rarely through impersonal publicity.
A visitor shared his memories of coming here for the very first time: …on his way he stopped off for lunch at a place which is also dedicated to spiritual enquiry. It was a very busy centre, with lots going on – the dining hall packed; he had a good lunch, but no-body spoke to him. Later he arrived at Chisholme. Someone was waiting for him at the front steps, showed him round, answered his questions. There was an intimacy and welcome here that was tangible and present right from the start…’I was acknowledged as a person, and that felt good and special. No judgement here - it was just the right place for me.'
While we have the task of making the school known, it is not our task to bring people here. Our task is to keep the ‘place’ – the school, ourselves, our actions – clean, and make the place shine. Whether the guests and students come or not is God’s business. We should not have to worry.
Returning to the initial question about the day’s news, we heard a report from a meeting of the directors and estate staff the previous day. There is a plantation of spruce trees on the estate (Fathill) that is now mature and ready for felling. This could provide heating fuel for up to twenty years for the school. This represents a substantial asset and reminds us of the value – in more than one sense – of the estate and physical setting of the school. It is a matter that requires our attention now, and is a gift, and so comes as good news.
Tuesday, August 21st
The first question this morning was: How can we make Chisholme more sustainable?
From that came – who is ‘we’ – or who are ‘we’?
Who is ‘we’? Is it everyone here in the room today, or everyone who loves the place, and considers it his/her home? And is the ‘we’ like a body of people collected as one, with some collective accountability, or are we simply a whole bunch of individuals, and each personally responsible, to whatever extend we each deem ourselves responsible – or not?
Someone remembered a story from one of their long courses: Bulent had gone into the larder to look for something, and when he tried to leave, the doorknob came off in his hand, and he found himself locked in. As a result, he was furious, and furious for a long time, and notably with the whole of the student body on that course:
‘This is your home and you are not looking after it!’
…and it took a lot more than mending the broken door-knob before he was appeased.
One person was reminded of the question they had been given as their essay title on a long course: ‘What is ‘private facing’, and how is it a key to collectivity and expression?
This also connected with the question of sustainability and support. Of course Chisholme needs to become sustainable, and that can only happen through many people making themselves available to support the place, through whatever means they might have at their disposal.
One person said she did not like to use the word ‘support’ in connection with Chisholme. She felt that first and foremost it was Chisholme which supported her, because it was here that she had been given to understand something about who she was, and she continued to be increased and nourished and sustained by this knowledge. In this we also were reminded of something a dear friend had said to one of her visitors, shortly before her death: ‘We are all very ordinary people. But we have been given just a glimpse of our potential!
One person felt the matter of the private facing was to do with awareness of how things really are: God is the support and the one who supports me. Whatever support I give here to Chisholme, that comes through me, but in fact God supports me through what I am given by coming here in the first place.
…and to be supported and to support – they don’t need to be seen as two separate things, they are one movement.
We also acknowledged that Chisholme potentially is here for every human being – but it comes with its own requirements.
Wednesday, August 29th
The morning started with a nice story: One of the people responsible for Chisholme just now recounted how yesterday he had been overcome with a sense of bewilderment, just not knowing where to turn, as there seemed to be so many different things which needed to be done. He was aware that – among many other things – the yurts needed to be taken down from their platforms in the woods, so he went there to lend a hand. Just as he was picking up a bedframe to carry away for storage, this van turned up on the drive. It was forced to stop right by the yurts as there was a tractor in the way; out stepped two friendly people who – on their way from the Outer Hebrides to Halifax – had spotted a sign to the Chisholme Institute, googled it, liked that it was about finding a spiritual orientation without dogma and had decided to find out more. They were very happy to stay for a bit and lend a hand.
Someone remarked that this was the fourth time this has happened recently – people just appearing out of the blue, without any apparent reason. But every time it turns out they had come just at the right time, both for them and for Chisholme.
This let to a wider conversation about what is happening at Chisholme this year?
What has this year showed us so far?
There seems to be a sense of shared responsibility – expressed in simple things such as that there is no longer a ‘head of the table’.
It seems important to stay completely open to all possibilities and not to project an outcome or aim.
It seems imperative to affirm that regardless of whether we have just walked in through the door or have done countless courses over many years, we are all students and always will be.
If we can refrain from imposing our ideas, not grasping at answers, then it seems, what is asked for emerges of its own accord.
It seems the original intention for Chisholme – what it is for – is asserting itself so very strongly now, and it does not depend on any particular person to make that happen.
Someone remembered the lovely quote:
And you – if you want to know the beauty of the Real beloved, initiate your intention to the love of God according to ‘I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known.’
We ended the morning talking about praise and gratitude, and how it seems that the human heart is made for praise and to be moved by beauty.
Friday August 31st - final conversation
Appreciation of the great variety of people who had passed through Chisholme over the summer – it feels like something very beneficial is growing.
Real friendship has been present, and has been established, and a spirit of sharing.
Does the value of something blossom when it ends, do we appreciate people more once they have left? The good of something or of someone is of the Real, and that is what remains even when they have left.
Someone remembers how the month started – an intention to arrive fresh, to de-familiarise ourselves from ourselves and from each other. We spent quite a bit of time over the month with this sentiment, dug this ground over the month and she was grateful for that.
‘It feels really important to give up my assumptions’.
On the second day of August, someone had asked about why we start things with ‘In the Name of God’? Exploring this question at the very beginning of the conversation month had been good and informed the whole month.
People expressed their feelings about having been at Chisholme at this time:
*…conversation has at times been torrential, and at times like a gentle stream and I feel blessed to have been part of it.
*…I am really grateful for all the new and old seekers I met, and I thank you for keeping this well replenished for all of us – like a well-spring of goodness and I am grateful to witness this.
*…I found a big family here, which I had not expected and I want to simply say ‘Thank you!’.
…in all this there is a meeting of hearts, so that the Mystery, which at times can be terrifying, or beautiful, is not so mysterious. This is exactly what this (conversation, or Chisholme) is for – when the hearts are at that point of both knowing and not knowing – situated in the Real, in the Good – not restricted by the temporal but embraced by the eternal.
One instant of Love is forever – that is really how it is!
…then, talking in reference to people leaving today: The real connection between people is by virtue of the Real, each person being a place where the Real meets the Real – and when someone leaves, well, you are departing, and not departing. The world is a very awesome expression at times, very difficult to not be swept away by it – but always it is covered by love. This room, this place is for becoming established in love.
Someone else: Does this conversation have to have an ‘outcome’? I don’t think it has to have that - it’s not like for example when we rallied round and paid off the mortgage – that was an outcome – this is different; we simply end with gratitude.
Last but not least, here is a short text sent by Rachel Gordin, an old friend from Israel, who had spent a week at Chisholme in August. She wrote it after she was home again.
What Is Private About the Private Face?
It was in 1989 that I first came to the school at Chisholme House. In the exterior, it was an invitation to a wedding celebration of a friend which served as an excuse for my visit. Interiorly, it was in response to a poem by Ibn 'Arabi included in that letter of invitation, and which I perceived as a wild call of my heart to be known and recognised. It was written as a love letter from God, and said:
"Dearly beloved, I have called you so often and you have not heard me. I have shown myself to you so often and you have not seen me... Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me? Why? Why? Why?... I am nearer to you than yourself, than your soul, than your breath..."
Ever since then my relationship with the school has had this unique taste of an almost paradoxical combination between the most vast impersonal perspective, and the most intimate secret, sweet as well as piercing, whispered to the heart. On the one hand - the metaphysics of Ibn 'Arabi, telling us that there is only One Unique Being, and that coming under this truth, and letting it be realized in us, can define a new space of unfathomable possibilities; and on the other hand - this secret invitation, as if special to you, that no one else can understand or touch. And "your life" is suddenly perceived as a Moebius Ring, in which the Exterior and the Interior constantly change places. And you yourself seem to be a puzzle in which time is of no consequence and things that happened years ago are seen in a completely new light in the most unexpected way.
Love takes so many forms! There is love for that which is unknowable, unimaginable and entirely other than you; that which is completely pure and cannot be contaminated by my "selfness". Ibn 'Arabi writes about this sort of love: "Wild she is. None can make her his friend". There is love which derives from similarity to anything human. Meister Eckhart writes that he wakes up to pray at night like a mother hearing her baby calling her. There is love that takes shelter under the wing of a Divine Name, which serves a more or less specific quality, like giving praise, or serving beauty or subtlety. This can be private and personal according to the Names each of us is destined to serve, according to our taste and capacity.
But there is also the mysterious possibility that Ibn 'Arabi calls "the Private Face of God", which seems to be not private at all. Or, maybe more correctly, it's privacy is not ours but God's. And it is not according to our capacity or value. The Private Face of God seems to be entirely the work of the Wahab - that aspect of God which is of pure Opulence and Richness-Beyond-Need; Which grants gifts because it's in its nature. That aspect which Ibn 'Arabi was advised to take as his sole companion on the Way. The Private Face is not personal, yet it is most unique. There is nothing like it, and apparently no one ever experiences it in the same way. This is apparently what is hinted at when we say about a saint: "Let God sanctify his secret".
It is said that Beshara, or the school at Chisholme House, is not offering a way. The way, says Ibn 'Arabi, is created by the feet that tread it. The only function of the school is to clear the obstacles that might prevent advance. And the invitation to us, as students, is to love the Real as deeply and sincerely as we can, and receive with gratitude whatever comes. Let It find Its unique way into our heart.
I have trod, and am still treading, my own path: There are times of pure magic, when that which is given abundantly is almost too much to bear, and there are times of helplessly being exposed to myself (and others) as false and pretending. But all extremes are engulfed by the love and compassion that cover the whole issue. Paraphrasing Simon Veil: Thank you, God, for exposing all my faults. Not necessarily in the aim of correcting them, but so that I'll be in the presence of Truth. In speaking about the intimacy of the Private Face one can easily fall into pretence, thinking that something was gained, deserved and owned. But love (for truth or beauty) is not like that. I've lately read about a Japanese poetess who is over ninety years old and she writes that when she is sad - she cups in her hands the sunlight that creeps under the door and dips her face in it.
As for me, at the present stage of "my life" (closer to the end than the beginning) I pay attention to what it is that people lean on as the meaning of their life, and I feel extremely grateful for what was given to find as meaning by Ibn 'Arabi and the school. And I ask for no better than to be able to say, in the words of my dear friend and companion on the way, shortly before she died (said in a heavy Lancashire accent):
"Gee-e-e, We are such ordinary people, all of us, and yet we were given to see a glimpse of our potential".
The Red Sail
Katharine Tiernan writes about St Cuthbert's years
in retreat, for Beshara Magazine
The Twenty-Nine Pages
An Introduction to Ibn 'Arabi's Metaphysics of Unity
is available from Beshara Publications