Enlightenment:

When I went to live at a Prinknash Abbey at the age of 19, I was a very driven, very idealistic young person. I wanted to find enlightenment, to discover what the kingdom of heaven was.

With great gentleness and skill, the monks encouraged me to stop looking for enlightenment — the kingdom — as if this was something which I could get my hands on, something missing and separate from ordinary daily life.

They suggested I turned my attention to being more present with whatever I happened to be doing. This included a great deal of time working in the kitchen and gardens, cleaning toilets and the endless polishing of wooden floors. I was being encouraged to let go of any notion of a separation between so-called ‘spirituality’ and the most mundane aspects of our days.

A philosopher once asked the Buddha what his monks did all day. The Buddha answered that they walk, stand, sit, lie down, wash their bowls and clean. Puzzled by this, the philosopher asked how the monks lives were any different from anyone else’s.

The Buddha replied that when they walk, they walk. When they stand, they stand. When they sit, they sit. When they lie down, they lie down. And when they wash their bowls and clean, they wash their bowls and clean.

I’m not sure how far the Buddha’s answer satisfied the philosopher, but the Buddha was saying that the practise of the monks is to be fully present for what needs tending to, to be present, moment by moment, for the gift of their life.

It’s very common for people to speak of the kingdom of heaven as somewhere or something that is separate from us in time and space. But there is a rich and ancient tradition of understanding the metaphor of the kingdom as meaning the gift of contemplation, the blossoming of awareness, the gift of seeing clearly.

In the gospel of Luke[1] we find Jesus being asked when the kingdom of God would come, as if it was wasn’t here (separate from us in time or space) and might suddenly appear at some point in the future.

Jesus answered that the coming of the kingdom cannot be observed and no one will announce, “Behold! here it is,” or, “Behold! there it is,” for behold! the kingdom of God is within you.

It’s easy to overlook the clear and astonishing invitation as well as it’s challenge: Behold! See!

The kingdom cannot be observed by the thinking mind, because the kingdom is the boundless awareness from which the thinking mind arises (the mind that looks for the kingdom is like a wave that looks for the ocean).

The kingdom is not going to come, because it’s already here, within all of us. The questions “when is the kingdom coming?” and “what on earth is the kingdom?” arise within and from it.

The question, therefore, is not “when is the kingdom going to be present and available for us?”, but “when are we going to be present and available for the kingdom?”

Our simple practice of meditation is way of responding to the invitation to behold, to see.

The great 7th century teacher of prayer St. Isaac the Syrian, who understood the metaphor of the kingdom to mean the gift of contemplation, of seeing clearly, wrote that we receive this gift when “our mind has been freed from its many conceptions and enters the unified simplicity of purity [of oneness] …and becomes as a little child”.[2]

The kingdom cannot be observed, but it can be realised by means of a mind which has left all concepts behind[3] and entered the unified simplicity of its ground, the oneness in which is it is always as open and trusting as a child.

In meditation, we free our mind from thoughts and concepts by practising stillness. We cultivate an orientation that is open, receptive and self-forgetful. As we learn to be still, to be silent, to trust, we enter the unified simplicity of oneness. We come home to what has always been present and available.

When we let go of our search for what was never missing, the grasping mind relaxes and the kingdom begins to appear.

The gift of seeing clearly is always available, always ready to open and blossom. It’s as present when we’re washing up or cleaning the toilet, as when we are sitting silently in prayer. It can manifest at any moment, anywhere — perhaps when we want our meditation practice to be quiet and blissful and someone insists on calling for us, or when the dog just won’t stop barking. Or perhaps when we’ve been trying to scrub burnt food off the bottom of a pan or our computer has just crashed for the tenth time in a row.

The kingdom is a present reality. It is like a seed buried in the soil of our life, waiting for us to water and tend to it. It is part-and parcel of who we are.

To live within the kingdom is to accept the invitation to a new way of seeing and a new way of being, to live the ordinary through transfigured perception.[4]

What will this look like? Compassion, solidarity, loving-kindness, peace.

[1] Luke 17:20–21.

[2] Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications, 2000) p.267.

[3] To explore this further, look at Chapter 4 of the 14th century work The Cloud of Unknowing.

[4] Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume 1 (Darton Longman and Todd, 2014) p.35

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Chris Whittington, founder of the School of Contemplative Life. Visit our website to sign up for the SoCL newsletter: www.schoolofcontemplativelife.com

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Chris Whittington, founder of the School of Contemplative Life. Visit our website to sign up for the SoCL newsletter: www.schoolofcontemplativelife.com

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