Saturday, 11 July 2015

Emptiness & Fullness: How to Live Spiritually Alive

23rd Psalm, Japanese Translation

The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush;
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness,
which restore my serenity.

He leads me in ways of efficiency
through calmness of mind,
and His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things
to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for His presence is here;

His timelessness, His all importance,
will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal
in midst of my activity,

By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows,
surely harmony and effectiveness
shall be the fruits of my hours,
for I shall walk, in the pace of my Lord
and dwell in His house forever.

Translated by Toki Miyashina

I seem to have had an exceptionally busy few weeks. This has occasionally been a little overwhelming and I have certainly felt exhausted at times. That said it has not been a negative kind a tiredness, the kind that comes from a weariness with life. Quite the opposite actually it has been a tiredness that comes from living a full life. A kind of satisfied tiredness. Maybe it’s the kind of tiredness a man is meant to experience.

The other evening I laid out on my settee, feeling tried but at the same time satisfied. You may remember the evening it was the first night of those powerful storms we have been experiencing. What a powerfully electric experience it was. I closed my eyes for a few moments and a lovely feeling came over me. I experienced a beautiful sensation around my brow and also in the pit of my stomach, the place where the intense fear used to inhabit. After a while two beautiful images came over me as I lay there listening to the thunder. There was a wonderful sense of connection and satisfaction in my heart. The images that came to me are two of my favourites. One was of an empty cup and the other of a cup that is overflowing.

Now when I think of these images my understanding is that the empty cup is symbolic of a clear mind, a completely empty and open mind and one that is able to be used to its best purpose. While the overflowing cup symbolises a heart that is filled to overflowing; a heart that is filled with abundant love; love that is being poured out on the world. Now for me these images symbolise the spiritual life. True spiritual living is about having a clear, empty and open mind and a heart that is so full that it is overflowing.

Now you often hear the question “Is the glass half empty or half full” it is symbolic of a person who is either an optimistic or a pessimistic person. I have been both at different times in my life. These days though I am neither, I am no longer a glass half empty or glass half full kind of man. These days I am completely empty glass kind of man, while at the same time I am also a cup that is so full it is overflowing kind of man. Now some folk tell me that you can’t be both, you have to be an either or and my answer to them is, says who? I am both and so can you be too, stop being so literal, open your mind, use your imagination and fill up your heart to overflowing.

This brings to mind a story I have heard in many different forms over the years…

There is a story of a university professor who visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The professor began to ask questions while the master just sat quietly, listening. After a while the master began to pour tea into the professor’s cup. The cup soon filled up, but the master did not stop pouring. The tea soon began to spill over on to the table. Initially the professor just sat there in stunned silence, he did not know what to do. Eventually he could take no more and shouted out “It’s overfull. No more will go in!” The master stopped pouring and simply said “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

This story teachers that a full cup, one that is overflowing is not a good thing to have. It teaches we need an empty cup, which symbolises and empty mind. What the Buddhists call a “Beginners Mind”. A mind that is open to new ideas. It is a humble mind that results in an open mind. Think of the image of the Buddhist monk with his begging bowl held out, an act of humility and interdependence.

The image of an overflowing cup also brings something else to my mind. A line from the 23rd Psalm. In the Psalm King David sings of God as a shepherd who will see him safely through the Valley of Death. At the beginning of this "blogspot" is a wonderful Japanese translation of these familiar words. The translation I believe helps us to make sense of these ancient words in our contemporary time. There aren’t really many shepherds about these days and it can be hard for 21st century boys and girls to relate to this metaphor.

The more traditional translation states that “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” In the psalm the overflowing cup is depicting an excess of goodness, a symbol of abundance, a source of joy. A heart full of Love. Can you ever be too full of love?

Here we have two images of cups overflowing: One depicting a mind that is too full and therefore unable to focus or to learn something new; the other depicting a cup overflowing with love that will enable us to live full lives despite the presence of fear.

So you see it is not a problem to have both an empty cup and one that is overflowing at the same time. This only becomes a problem if you get lost in the metaphor, the curse of the literalist. The two images are of course depicting different aspects of our humanity.

The Zen story is describing the mind, whereas the Psalm is depicting the heart. It is talking of God’s infinite love. So yes we can be full abundantly with love and yet still have an empty mind. I suspect that it is the full heart that enables us to clear our minds, or perhaps it’s the clear mind that enables us to have our hearts filled.

Maybe, maybe not!

It’s a bit like the old riddle “What came first, the chicken or the egg” Do you need to fill your heart in order to clear your mind, or ought you be focusing on clearing your mind in order to allow your heart to be filled to overflowing? Why not try both at the same time.

Now in my case it would seem that it was only when love began to take over my heart that my mind began to clear. My head used to be full of so much that there was no space for anything else. My thoughts would just swirl round and round and round and go pretty much nowhere. These days my head is pretty much empty most of the time. My head is clear, even when I’m really busy and my diary gets too full. This is good thing as my mind can be used for what its true purpose is. I thank God that it is no longer held back by the regret of the past or the fear of the future. As a result I have peace of mind these days, even in the most difficult of times. The cup (my mind) is no longer overflowing and yet at the same time I experience the cup that runneth over, I know that everlasting and eternal love of God. As a result I can experience this abundant love present in life.

That is not enough though. I have also learnt that it is my task to pour this love out onto the world. To bring this love alive. In many ways I suspect it is our task not so much to seek and find God, but to let God out and pour this love on our world, whilst allowing and inviting that love to be poured out on us. Again like the Buddhist bowl this is symbolic of our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We each fill one another’s bowl.

From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live.

These two images also bring something else to my mind about the spiritual life. This is of course the phrase “faith without works is dead”. For me these two cups also symbolise both faith and works. The empty cup is the faith and the overflowing cup is the works, or maybe it’s the other way around. By working these two together, we become spiritually alive. In order to do the works we need the faith. We need to be still and to connect spiritually, we need to clear our minds and fill our hearts and then to truly bring this to life we need to do the works and pour out this love on the world. By the way if we do this the love will grow and the peace we feel will become realised. That said we must also remain appropriately humble and let others serve us too. We need to accept the love and help of others. We must never think that we can live by ourselves alone. To be fully alive is to understand, accept and embrace our interdependence.

The spiritual life is simple, but it is far from easy. It needs two simple things. One is emptiness and the other fullness. Now this requires an empty mind and a heart that is full to over flowing. How is this achieved you may well ask? Well quite simply actually, through faith and good works. All we need to do is spend time in stillness allowing our minds to become empty and clear and also spend time giving of ourselves to one another and life itself, pouring out our love. That said we must also spend time in silence allowing our hearts to be filled, acknowledging our interdependence and allowing others to serve us too.

It really is that simple.

So let us become like tea cups, empty and ready to filled. And when we are filled to overflowing lets pour out that love on our world.

Let’s follow the advice of “the lads” in those Tetley Tea Bag adverts lets “Let flavour flood out”

I'm going to end this little chip of a blogspot with the following extract from "The Book of Words" by Lawrence Kushner

From “The Book of Words” by Lawrence Kushner

Energy in the form of light is trapped in gross matter. Sparks of holiness are imprisoned in the stuff of creation. They yearn to be set free, reunited with their Source through human action. When we return something to its proper place, where it belongs, where it was meant to be; when we use something in a sacred way or for a holy purpose; when we treat another human being as a human being, the captive sparks are released and the cosmos is healed. The liberation of light is called the Repair of creation.

The process occurs also within each individual. According to one legend, once there was a primordial person as big as the whole universe whose soul contained all souls…

This person is identical with the universe and, for this reason, each human being is at the same time both riddles with divine sparks and in desperate need of repair. Each person is the whole world. And every human action therefore plays a role in the final restitution. Whatever we do is related to this ultimate task: To return all things to their original place in God. Everything a person does affects the process.

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