Thursday 6 July 2017

A Restlessness Which Leads to Peace

You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You
(St Augustine, Confessions I)

The 20th Century Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said 'the point isn't the search, but rather the distress and unease which motivate the search.' This is a fairly sound observation. We are, each of us, individual subjects who seek in external objects the means to bring us that state of happiness which is necessarily an internal experience.

It is as if we were responding to a feeling of hunger by going dancing or shopping for new shoes. These can be such effective distractions that we forget our hunger. Nonetheless however busy we keep ourselves or however much we immerse ourselves in company there will always be times when we are alone and undistracted. It is then that we once again become aware of the gnawing emptiness at the centre of our being.

If the best response to hunger is eating then what is the best response to that distress and unease which proceeds more from the mere fact of being alive than from any one specific cause? My supposition here is that from the moment we first become conscious of ourselves as individuals until we draw our final breath we are always more or less uncomfortable about something. Since, during the course of a normal lifespan, every one of these particular somethings will change thousands of times the source of the discomfort does not rest in them as such but in our responses to them.

As I understand it (and I may be wrong) Zen argues that the problem lies in the human use of imagination. We do not experience reality as it exists in itself but only things which have been through a process of distortion by our thoughts before they present themselves to the observing part of our mind. That is, when looking at a thing or persons our ego, to put it crudely, asks and answers the question 'what's in it for me?' And then presents the image plus conclusion to the observing mind. Much of this processing happens below the level of consciousness and is practically instantaneous so that we are not aware of it, only of its results.

Additionally at any given moment we will, at some level, be thinking about the past or the future. Neither of these things have any real existence. Only the present moment exists. What, therefore, we hold in our minds is something which is both unreal and subject to ego centred imaginative distortions. The distress and unease which leads to a search for something to bring peace is a product of the radical strain we experience through inhabiting a reality which we never accurately recognise or appropriately respond to.

Much of this is good psychology and can be adapted fairly easily to Catholic belief. However Zen (again with the 'as I understand it' limitation) goes on to conclusions incompatible with Christian belief. Letting go of all our illusory thoughts, feelings and beliefs and being present fully and only in the moment we become aware that emptiness is the nature of being and that's all right. Our Self has no objective existence but is just something that comes into being and passes away with the moment, like the moment. The observing mind is simply the underlying Buddha nature of the moment and all it contains and of every moment. Realising our Buddha nature is to become one with all that really is and so our distress and unease, the products of imagination, melt away. Since we are oned with All we feel compassion for All and this compassion will be manifest in all the acts which we perform within the moment in which we happen to be.

While this Zen vision is not as nihilistic as some Christians claim it certainly lacks the Divine spark. If we are fully present in this precise moment then part of the reality we must encounter will be God. Not an abstract deity which is just another label for 'Buddha nature' but the personal God who loves me, who became Incarnate for me and suffered death for me on the Cross. This 'now' we are living in is not just something we observe it is also someone towards whom we are always relating, a relationship of love.

It is true that He is not the God of our imagining, the God we rebel against, the God whose existence we deny, the tyrant God. He is as He is and to know Him as He is we must let go our illusory thoughts about Him. It is true also that He may choose to be present to us in the form of absence; but this is a function of our relationship, it is the form He knows to be best suited to me at this time to help me understand Him better and love Him more. But He will appear to us under more than one form, as the sacrament of the altar, as the action of grace in our hearts, as 'something understood.' He is always with us.

If we are fully present in the God breathed 'now' and in all the 'nows' of eternity then this Love will grow as a reflection of His. And as His was a self-giving, sacrificial love for all that He had created, more than a passive compassion, then so must ours be. The restlessness that drives us to find rest in Him gives birth to the love that seeks to bring peace to all whom we encounter.

Catholic Scot has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached

The Charlotte Joko Beck quotation is from a talk called The Search in her book Everyday Zen

The picture is a detail from The Conversion of St Augustine by Fra Angelico 


  1. Love that Herbert poem Steve. Must admit I don/t get zen never have

    1. I think that Buddhism does some interesting psychology and philosophy but ultimately misses the mark. And Zen is a designedly minority pursuit within the family of Buddhisms. The Western professional's it appeals to probably find that one of its more attractive features.