|John Butler – Discovering Stillness Part Two|
Growing from a country childhood, John’s natural mysticism developed into organic farming and meditation. Much later, when life fell apart, it took him through depression and years of wandering in deserts of different sorts before gradually coming to realize that all appearing to be lost on earth is spiritually found.
— Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers
Iain: Hello and welcome once more to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and today my guest is John Butler and we are not in London in our usual studios, we’re up in Bakewell in Derbyshire. John wasn’t able to come to London. So, we are actually, in a very special location; we are in All Saints Church in Bakewell and we are here because John comes to meditate and pray here at five o’clock every morning for two hours and also later on in the afternoon for two or three hours. So, he spends a lot of time here, just in the corner there [points to his left] just off camera. So, we heard about John because someone wrote in and told us about him and he’s written two books; Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment which is four hundred pages and it is a very interesting read and Mystic Approaches and he also has two books of poetry, which he has just given me and I have not looked at yet, Destined to Joy: Mystic Verses Part One and Do You Pray For Me: Mystic Verses Part Two. So, if you want to read more about John there’s plenty out there to read. So, John, welcome to Conscious TV, and I am going to ask you first of all about your father because he taught you some great things in life, didn’t he?
John: John: [Nods head], mmm, he was a quiet man, an artist, a craftsman. Very conscious of his surroundings. A landscape artist mostly at that time. So, he taught me to observe nature, to see the beauty of what was in front of me. Nothing elaborate, just the hedges, the trees, the grass, to notice the sky. He was also very conscious of good work. He loved carpentry, he taught me how to use tools and I remember so well him saying “pay attention, keep your eye on what you are doing. When you are sewing a piece of wood, listen to and watch the movement of the saw, watch the hammer so that you hit the nail straight. And these two lessons of 100% giving attention and observing what was around me have stood me in good stead all my life.
Iain: They’re wonderful qualities which are probably quite rare these days which is sad but that is the way the world is…and what did you get from your mother?
John: Mum was Russian. Well, she was also an artist in her way. She was a housewife of course, which is what women were then they called themselves that and were proud of it. Mum was always, when Women’s Lib[eration] came in she said there is nothing wrong with being a mother and a housewife. Anyway, what I got from mum was primarily a Russian heart and Russian hearts they just spill out all over the place. And I was always told as a child that I wear my heart on my sleeve, well, people laughed at me but it is one of the best things, to have a great heart. To work from the heart, to recognise the existence of the heart and the whole household shone with that tender loving care that emanates from someone that loves their work and gives themselves to it; the way the table was laid, the way she knitted our clothes for us, did the mending, did the washing up, everything was a work of art and done with love.
Iain: And I know at seven years of age you were sent to boarding school and that was a little bit of a shock but you escaped to the chapel and pray when you needed didn’t you, to find your solitude and balance again.
John: [Laughs] It was a shock because up till then we had lived in the deep country and I hardly knew what another little boy was. My companions were nature and animals. And I was suddenly thrown into this world of other little boys and I was completely lost and for the first time in my life I knew what it was to feel isolated and lonely. And God the school was in a rural setting so there were big gardens where I could go and, also in my little childish way I remember so well just burying my little head in my hands and closing my eyes and saying God bless mummy and daddy and my sister and our dog and what a haven of home and security that was for me.
Iain: It seems even at an early age you had a way of going inside and finding somewhere you could rest, as you used the word haven just now.
John: Yes, I think that probably was so, if not inside, at least to stillness and quietness. In nature, it is outside, isn’t it? You look at a tree and put your arms around a tree and you’re held in stillness, in quietness, in that reassurance of simply being itself. And what a contrast it is to the noise and the agitation that you get from most people.
Iain: And you talk about, I don’t know if you remember, at the beginning of this book [Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment] you talk about, it’s a book about [being] committed to discovering stillness.
John: Well I wouldn’t say that, no, it is really a book committed to discovering…well, I don’t really know what really…if I use clever words like the Infinite, or even God it, as a young man I wasn’t, I still don’t know really what they are, who does know what God is [laughs]? Nobody knows what God is, but there’s, how can I put it? Perhaps one longs for the unlimited, for freedom and for love and any worldly experience, all these things are finite; they have an end. You go out, you discover freedom, go out and climb a mountain but then you have to come home again. Love is wonderful in its flowering but then sooner or later it says “no”, it has an end. All the things you love, the happiness, it all comes and goes, doesn’t it? I think that perhaps I was just greedy, I wanted that which didn’t end.
Iain: but sometimes we need that, you call it greed, that commitment to find, otherwise we never find it.
John: Well, absolutely, that’s the motivation, isn’t it?
Iain: We will come on to that a bit litter, I just want to go through your story a little bit sequentially and just discover these important pointers in your life. So, there’s so much we could do because you are now seventy-nine years old, there’s so much we could talk about but I’m going to summarise it to some extent:
You were an army officer, which I guess was National Service, involved with the family business and then in 1963 you went to South America…
Iain: What’s the reason you went to South America?
John: Oh, I wanted to make the world a better place [laughs].
Iain: What was your vision of making the world a better place?
John: Well, I was a farmer, I’d loved farming since my first breath, I was soaked in farming. I wanted to be a farmer, it was my overriding dream really. And I had spent some time, I had studied the subject and it was the time when these charities like OXFAM were just beginning, so it was the fashionable thing really, I suppose. I had another mate and we were going out to Bolivia, we were going to take a…they were giving grants of a thousand hectares to new settlers who would go out and grow food for the hungry, so we thought we would go out and do that. We were young and strong but my mate didn’t come, he met a girl who stayed in England and I met a Peruvian girl and her father invited me to go and work for him in Peru, so I did that on a big sheep hacienda. But that was my Socialist time of life and I wanted to do good so I ended up working as a volunteer agriculturalist in the mountains of Peru.
Iain: Which must have been beautiful, actually.
John: Uh huh [nods head].
John: Well I wouldn’t say it was easy but there was plenty of space up there and I loved that, I loved the donkeys and the oxen. And yes it was a good year but I think like most people who had done voluntary service, I learnt, it gave me much more than I gave to it really and I learnt probably the greatest lesson of my life: I remember sitting on a mountainside one day, I had done a lot of work and a little bit of work planting trees on eroded mountainsides and of course the local sheep and goats had come and eaten them all off, so I was sitting there a bit depressed. And it seemed, a little voice said to me “make whole, be whole.”
Iain: Make whole, be whole.
John: To make whole, be whole. Well I hardly understood what that was then but I had read a little bit about meditation, not that I really understood it. But I saw myself as a mixed-up young man trying to help people, the local Indians, who were older and wiser than myself and more able to live. And I realised I had to do something about sorting out myself before I could be much use to others. So, having read a bit about meditation, when I came home to England, I looked for and I found a school of meditation.
Iain: I wanted to just point out one more thing that I thought was important in your book was, there was a situation, you were in the mountains, in the jungle I think in Peru and you felt the only way was to surrender.
John: Ah, yes [laughs].
Iain: Do you remember that? That was quite important I think.
John: Yes, I had a pal and we’d found an Indian who would take us, and we had several days in the jungle, just walking through the jungle which was…
Iain: …it must have been an incredible experience.
John: It was an incredible experience, it was absolutely wonderful. The jungle is very thick it is quite difficult to walk through, with great trees above us, very little sunlight comes down to the forest floor, you creep along over the fallen leaves, these huge lizards, snails and snakes, you see monkeys up in the trees and at one point we came to a little creek with sandy banks and there was a great sought of furrow gouged out of the sand as though someone had dragged a big oil barrow through it. And we looked at the guide and it was a huge snake, an anaconda and I wanted to follow up and find it but he wouldn’t let me, he said it would be lying curled up ready to grab us. And then it started to rain and we camped just near there, just beside it and we made a little fire, just sleeping on the ground there and I didn’t sleep very well, I think maybe I woke up in the middle of the night and the rain had cleared, and you know the jungle’s full of shrieks and funny sounds, rustlings at night, all the animals come out and move around and I sat there by the campfire, in this little circle of light and I thought of this great snake, I could reach out and touch it probably for all I knew. And I began to feel fear and we were alone in this jungle and if the Indian deserted us God knows what we would have done. And then quite inexplicably I just, perhaps I had stopped fighting, I gave up the struggle, I surrendered. I just relaxed into the situation as it was, into the unknown and I suddenly felt peace, such as that I’d never felt before. Just total peace, in which all the threats that surrounded us were contained and alright. And I look back on that as one of my first great spiritual experiences.
Iain: Yes, you say in the book “I put my trust in forces greater than me.”
Iain: Yes, which we all have to do, don’t we sometimes, if not all the time?
John: Yes, in a way, I’ve been doing it all my life. That is the essence.
Iain: [Reading from the book] “putting your trust in forces greater than you.”
John: That’s right.
Iain: Yes. Do you feel that peace now?
John: Of course. I am nervous before an interview but what do I do? I find that stillness and I feel confident, it’s like an invisible hand to hold, a rock.
Iain: So how do you find the stillness?
John: How do I find it? Well it can’t be described.
Iain: Yes and you said you were nervous before the interview and you find that stillness…
John: …yes, how do I find it? I’ve had many years of practice, it is second nature to me now. Probably my first nature. It is so obvious, we are sitting in it like fishes in the sea. You can never not be still but the trouble is we just don’t see it. We look down and we just live in this cocoon of mental agitation [covers his eyes with his hands], lost in thought; that’s the human condition. At least what we call the human condition, but actually it’s lost, it is not reality at all, what we are, and that is the cause of all of our problems. We are absent from the presence of God.
Iain: And this in a way, the groundwork is what your father was teaching you, about watching the now…
John: yes, to be present, to be present. The present is such an important word, now, the present moment here and now. The present moment…[the church bells begin to chime]…you can hear the church clock chiming, can’t you?
Iain: I can.
John: It is sounding in stillness, isn’t it?
Iain: It’s one o’clock…
John: …in stillness and in timelessness. Time goes round, round and round in eternal presence, the peace of God that passeth understanding, right here and now, you can never be closer to God than right here and now.
Iain: Okay, so I am going to keep going with your story, see what else comes out of that. You were starting to say that when you got back from South America you were twenty-seven and you discovered this school of mediation.
Iain: Tell us about that, about how you discovered it, not so much how you discovered it but how it was important to you.
John: Well, it certainly was very important. Yes, I had to go to London to be taught, I was taught. My first farm was at Bakewell then, so I had to get the late night train back from London to look after my animals the next morning and I was sitting in St Pancreas station waiting room, among all the rubbish and the unfortunate drunks and homeless that used it and I sat and closed my eyes and meditated as I had been told and there and then in that seemingly uncongenial situation it opened up, like that [raises his arms high] and I realised that all the space, the freedom that I had longed for and that I had been travelling the world to find, the deserts and the mountains of this world where within me, and that discovery, that discovery, well it has been going on ever since. Bigger and bigger, greater and greater, better and better.
Iain: So the discovery was the beginning of something in a way.
John: It was the beginning of realisation. Of course, I had the theory, I was brought up in a Christian school, I had ten years of compulsory chapel and scripture lessons, I knew a lot of the Bible by heart and the old prayer book; “The kingdom of God is within you,” you know I’d learnt that but what did it mean? I didn’t really know but very soon in those first few periods of meditation I had realised there was this dimension that was not of this…not what we call…this world. There was a further dimension that could be realised. That’s the word realisation. The Biblical phrase comes alive The Kingdom of God, what does that mean, I don’t know it’s difficult to say even now but it’s within you, it really is within. And the peace of God that passes understanding, it is beyond the thinking mind. You don’t get it by substituting one thought for another but by opening-up to this dimension of spirit really, that’s what it is. Invisible. You can’t describe it. Everybody knows what silence is but no one can describe it. Who knows what silence is?
Iain: I’m not sure that everyone knows what silence is actually. They think it’s just not hearing any noise.
John: Well, exactly.
Iain: We will go into more detail later but I think there is almost an art to silence somehow. I know you had some, again, important experiences which helped deepen your realisation, there was one time when you were on the underground train in London and you saw everyone as Jesus, is that right?
John: Well I know I used the word when I described it, but I’m not sure really what I meant by it. I think the words Jesus and Christ so often get used with very nebulous meaning and different people of course mean it in different ways but I think how I would describe it now as far as I remember, it was this realisation of this stillness, that there in this underground carriage was full of this stillness and within this stillness the bodies, the sounds, the personalities took place and actually pervaded everybody.
Iain: Whether they realised it or not.
John: Oh absolutely, I mean if you look at people’s eyes, everybody every eye shines with more or less light even if the eye is very dull, it is the same light isn’t it, how many lights are there? There is only one light isn’t there? And so, it is, there is only one stillness, there’s only one stillness. And I think these first experiences of mine were like that.
Iain: You had another time when I think you were also in London where even you saw the garbage as beautiful, everything was shining.
John: Yes, well again it depends what you’re focussed on. There are levels of consciousness, if your heart is light, if your heart is full of light, you see light. And everything that is in it is light, you know beauty is in the eye of the beholder isn’t it, if your eye is full of beauty that’s what you see.
Iain: Yes but I think it was also important from what you explained in the book about that realisation, I am just trying to find the words here [from the book] that forced you to review some deeply negative attitudes towards civilisation’s city life.
John: Absolutely, yes, well I think I said, being a country boy I was at that time very negative about city life as a sort of worst of the worst [laughs], you know we used words like Townies to describe those not fortunate enough to live in the country and civilisation was the very antithesis of nature. Unnatural wasn’t it, and so these were some of the great lessons I had to overcome and certainly meditation did help to clear-out some of those negative thoughts from my mind but unfortunately there were many, many more of them deeply buried inside, it is a long process.
Iain: It is a long process and I think that one of the things that comes across, certainly in your book and your story is this motivation, this determination to keep going somehow, you didn’t give up. Let’s go through the story and we’ll come to some examples of this, so in your thirties you were, you actually thought of becoming a monk at one point, you were in and out of monasteries, you were searching still in the Christian tradition I guess there.
John: Mmm, yes, I don’t remember too clearly what my motivation was, I think perhaps it was a reaction you know I didn’t want to be what most of my contemporaries were, I didn’t want to go into business, I didn’t want to go into the professions. Monastic life seemed to offer an alternative but that was about the same time as I learned to meditate and it certainly raised the question do I follow this way or the way of meditation? I don’t see any conflict now but then I did it seemed an either/or situation. At that time…things have changed a lot in that last fifty or sixty years, the Church was really, quite suspicious of meditation it, it regarded it as something Eastern which is very odd, but anyway it did and I guess I was caught up in that but anyway I decided to stay with meditation, because even in those early months I realised, or I felt it was, at least for me a more effective way of spiritual work.
Iain: You say more than once in the book that your two loves at that point were meditation, farming and animals and there's a lovely example you gave, one point you had to sell your farm and you were quite sad about that and you were just sitting, feeling it and this ram came over to you. Just talk us through what happened there.
John: Excuse me, may I just jump back for a moment to make a little comment about that decision about meditation?
Iain: Of course.
John: The accusation is often made that meditation is a withdrawal from this world but absolutely on the contrary, the key principle of the method that I taught was that you practise it while living in the world. A monk's life may possibly be considered a withdrawal from worldly life but meditation, absolutely not. It is the art of finding the eternal, in the midst of the marketplace, the stillness in the movement.
Iain: To be, I forget the exact phrase, but to be in the world but not of the world.
John: Absolutely, that's the good phrase in the world but not of the world. Yes.
Iain: I understand that.
John: Yes, and it is utterly practical. It is absolutely not a withdrawal, an opting out, it is a completely different understanding.
Iain: I have read many things over the years about monks that have spent years meditating in very confined places, like a cave or a monastery and they come to the city and they are lost.
Iain: And what you're saying is that, that stillness, that presence it's right in the marketplace, in the city.
John: Yes, in the most chaotic imaginable situation. Yes.
John: God is with us.
Iain: Yes. I am going to insist on the story about the ram because I love the story.
John: Yes, so do I [laughs]. I think it is one of those wonderful things that I have got no explanation for but at that time...one of the great loves of my life are sheep...I can tell you a lot about my understanding of the lamb of God [laughs] anyway, at that time I had quite a considerable flock of sheep; about one hundred and fifty sheep, and five rams I think and one of these rams was an old warrior, where through much fighting he'd split his skull and was...old soldier [laughs]. And just before things happened; I had to move on from my first farm. I was sitting on one side of the field, I'm not sure if I'd been crying, but I was very unhappy about it all, losing my beloved animals and these rams were lying under a hedge at the other side of the field about, I suppose, a hundred yards or so away. And to my amazement, one of these rams; this old warrior, he stood up, he left the others, slowly and deliberately he walked across the field, he laid his head in my lap and just stood there for a minute or two, or three. And he turned away and went back and laid back with his companions. It brings tears to my eyes to tell you. Well, what do you make of that?
Iain: That extraordinary connection that you have had with nature, which is everyone's potential in a way.
John: Well, maybe that was it. I did consider that [to be] one of the greatest honours of my life. I couldn't ask for more.
Iain: One of the greatest honours of your life [nodding]. Yes, wonderful.
John: See, [this] Russian heart brings tears to my eyes [wipes his eyes dry] even in front of a camera, I'm sorry.
Iain: Well, you have had a bit of an up-and-down story in some ways and I'm going to now move on because in your late forties, your life fell apart and you had quite bad depression. How did that start?
John: Well, I had a second farm then, it was a lovely little farm and that is really another little story. I was happy as a farmer, I was married by then and had a good wife...but we had many meditation students at that time who used to come to the farm. I was quite well known, as one of the first organic farmers. There was a woman that came to meditate and on one occasion...we meditate with closed eyes by the way...we were sitting together and we'd just come to stillness and I saw our two souls rise from our bodies and merge as one. She was a woman with very open clear eyes and when I looked at her, I saw right through to the infinite beyond.
Iain: So, what does that mean?
John: What does that mean?
Iain: The "infinite beyond." What did you actually see?
John: Well you have got to realise there are two sorts of sight; there's the eyes of flesh and there's what's called insight...seeing with the eyes of the heart. [smiles]. Flesh sight is always limited; it has a boundary, flesh sees flesh. But we all have to some extent a sense of indescribable beauty, or indescribable peace...something like that. What did I see? I saw the indescribable, right there. I saw the infinite indescribable. But it is the realest of the real when you see it. And what really tipped me back, tipped me into depression was that I was still a young man, a hot-blooded young man, still very much living in my physical body and my human emotion. How do you reconcile the two? There was that spiritual union, if you like, the mystical marriage, contrasted with two people living lives both with their own marriages, their homes, their jobs that were separate. How do you reconcile unity with separation? Well, I couldn't at that time. It was beyond my ability, my experience. I couldn't go back into that old life. Of course, I couldn't escape it either, really, I was sort of, imprisoned in it.
Iain: So it was an experience that took you out [raises arms in a wide arc above his head] of your world.
John: Yes, that's right. I suppose in modern jargon, it blew my mind. I'm not sure if that is accurate or not. It's not a phrase I normally use.
Iain: Sounds very accurate! It blew your mind [laughs].
John: But, I went back home and there was my dear wife but somehow it was all too small, I couldn't...I had been shown something...well anyway, the gist of it was it threw me into a turmoil of emotions and I left. I had to really break away.
Iain: You had to leave your marriage.
John: I left my farm, I left my home.
John: I had one of the little motor caravans of that time and I drifted around for some years homeless, jobless, loveless and alone. And it was a wretched time of life. I just picked through it, I did what I could.
Iain: But you'd had that experience. So, had that given you a reference point, had it given you an opening?
John: Yes it did because how can one access it? Well, meditation of course does just that. Because in meditation you...if I can give you a demonstration, the beautiful demonstration of meditation, I hope the camera can see my hands, is just that; [unfolds clenched fingers into open palms].
Iain: It's just an opening.
John: It's letting go.
Iain: letting go.
John: Now this is how we live [tightens fingers again], forgetting, forgetful of the One.
Iain: Trying to hold on.
John: ...trying to hold on. We hold on to our personal life and so we are imprisoned with our ego, which is our sense of separation. And in meditation, it starts very gently at first, so it is not frightening or anything but very gently it helps you to do that [unfolds fingers to open palms again]. Now when you let go, you discover that you are not actually separate at all. You are united. You are in that which is undivided. Indescribable but undivided. There's not two at all, there's just One. One love. One person. Singular. Adam in the paradise was singular, one I Am. Now that's what I had been shown in this dramatic episode with this woman; the Oneness. Well, you could say, that then the work, the real work began because the two polarities had been clearly identified to me. I was too muddled really to put it as clearly as I am saying to you now but that's what gradually dawned on me. At one time in the motor caravan I went to spend a winter in Spain, alone of course and I spent hour after hour after hour just meditating. I moved from doing the standard half-hour morning and night and meditation became salvation because in salvation you are taken out of this imprisonment and [unfolds arms] you are shown what's real. You're saved from drowning in this world, just like Saint Peter was walking on water; he was drowning in the world, [and] there was Jesus free beside him. Peter was drowning, he reached, he said, "help me." Jesus said "what were you frightened about? What were you drowning for? Have faith."
Iain: Have faith.
John: That's what it's all about.
Iain: And you never stopped having faith even though it was a difficult time?
John: I don't think I ever did because I had this wonderful practice and this practice [meditation] is such a wonderful way of putting it into practice. So twice every day without fail and for increasing lengths of time. I was just surrendering to that total presence and to that love that has no end. That love that never says no. To pure, total love which is, which I'd seen in her eyes you see? And yet the body of course said no...
Iain: ...in a way it wasn't to do with her...
Iain: ...she was a portal somehow...
John: well the body was a portal because that isn't really what we are. And this is the great discovery; that man is not limited to the flesh, the flesh as the Bible tells us is prophet of nothing.
John: The flesh is just...look, anything that dies, mortality, the whole world [that] comes to pass is not what we are. Man, is eternal being.
Iain: Okay. I am going to go back to your story a little bit because I think it is important for people to see that your path wasn't always smooth, it had ups and downs, and how you dealt with the downs I think is so important and people somehow, they get stuck in having the highs, as they see them; the experiences but these practicalities.
John: Yes of course, well, it's discipline that pulls you through. You have just got to keep on practising. Practise, practise, practise.
Iain: This discipline, in the motor-home, you kept the discipline of meditation.
John: Yes, but in a way, it isn't difficult because it is a way, in a way it is like, well it is being described as a trail of grains of sugar, you know? You follow it because it's always leading you from better, to better, to better.
Iain: From better, to better, to better.
John: Yes, it's described as a trail of sugar, you see, leading to the sugar mountain, which is of course the Kingdom of God.
Iain: Yes but unfortunately in our society there's so many false trails, trying to take you from better, to better, to better and all you end up with is an unhealthy body and an overdraft and credit card bills [laughs] and...
John: Well that's why it's...well I think one of the impediments, one of the things that stops us setting out on the spiritual life is that we are not sufficiently unhappy. We are too content with this sort of compromise with life, with all the little sandwich bars and baubles that life offers to us; that comfort of a teddy bear and you know for some people that's not good enough, you want more, you want the real thing. And I guess I was one of those people.
Iain: Yes but you also had what I would call, the taste, not the taste, as it is not a strong enough word but you had visions, in one way, you had big, big, clues and not everyone has that.
John: Well yes, that's also true and am I not blessed?
Iain: There is a blessing in that, you are absolutely right.
John: Absolutely, you know they say, the Bible tells us we are saved by grace. What is grace? It is something that comes unseen, unknown, you know, it is like memory, where does memory come from? It just comes, doesn't it?
Iain: I think what we are going to do is a part two of this interview because we have about ten minutes left and I am only...so we will keep going and there will be a part two. So, what happened next was in 1998 you went to Africa for a time.
John: Yes, I was offered a job out in Africa, South Africa. I went out there, the job didn't work out, so after some time I hired a little car and I just drove off. I didn't really have a plan, I didn't really have a proper map but I just followed the road and it all unfolded in front of me. I slept in the back of the car or out on the ground under the stars, oh I actually loved it. The space, the glorious space. And I never went to any big towns only little ones, I just bought what I had to and got out into the open again [laughs]. I just found the big empty spaces on the map and I went there.
Iain: It comes across in the book that you are always drawn to wide-open, preferably wild places.
Iain: and but for the wind there was [were] utter silences that you'd never known before.
Iain: There was no place for your depression anymore.
John: No, I suppose, out there...I was so thrilled by it, so...
Iain: Utter silence.
John: Yes, so I just couldn't get enough of space and silence. I have always loved space and silence, they're just natural to me, I belong there. That's where I feel at home.
Iain: But it seems to me that it is kind of, what you've told us so far about your life, it's almost like there is this dance of space and you are drawn to this space on the outside, you recognise the real space is primarily on the inside. And you are in Africa and of course you are completely attracted to the stillness of the space, nothing around for miles and miles.
John: Yes, I actually loved that. When I was a boy at school, my favourite picture was of a cowboy riding up to the crest of a hill with the caption "don't fence me in" I loved that phrase. And Africa was in that sense...yes and then I went on, I was in the Kalahari and the Namibian desert and that...oh I just loved it. It always seemed to me [to be] obvious why the early Christians, why men of prayer went to the desert and I experienced it for myself and it is just all so obvious there, it is all just before you; the Infinite. You are nothing. You are taken into the immensity of what's there.
Iain: Because you talk in the book about there, when you are in Africa about the absence of subject/object relationships. It's not you and the other, it's just the One.
John: No, that's right. All that dies away. All the personality is, is nothing.
John: The 'me', the John Butler is just...you forget about it...it's just nothing.
Iain: Yes, and of course you came back from Africa to England...
John: Yes, [laughs] where you can imagine that is the opposite, getting back to [England]...well I'd get back into John Butler again [laughs]. Or what the world considered that to be.
Iain: And you found it tough again, didn't you?
John: Well, I, you know, I had lost my job as a farmer. I was desperate to find some sort of work and what on earth could I do? I wrote a CV [curriculum vitae] at that time and I remember more-or-less what I wrote. I wrote I knew something about freedom and therefore I could help others to freedom. And of course, freedom is love. Love is freedom. The two are really the same thing, spiritually speaking. And if someone could give me a channel for my love, I would give my all. That was what I was looking for. And of course, who answered my CV? Nobody [laughs]! I was looking for freedom in the world of bondage.
Iain: But you'd also had the realisations before when you were in London and you saw the garbage as beautiful in the underground [tube station] and somehow, you'd had those experiences but something...it is hard isn't it? I'm just pointing out that you had had these reference points but you had this openness in Africa, this stillness. John Butler has almost disappeared and you get back to England, and the reality of day-to-day life hits you again.
John: Well, I suppose, I hadn't...I was still...we are such spiritual infants, you know, even now as an old man I am still a spiritual child. It's a long journey and one is learning all the time. You learn something every day. And at that time, I was still grappling with questions that I, that now, I no longer have these problems. But at that time, I did.
Iain: I just wanted people to understand where you really were. You said again, [that] you fell into personal desire. You had to deal with what you call the cancerous root of egoism by exposing it bit-by-bit. How did you expose it bit-by-bit? The cancerous root of egoism.
John: Yes, that's a good phrase [laughs]. How did I deal with it? Well, how indeed. I'm not sure that we can deal with it because you see we, I am the ego, so it is the ego trying to deal with the ego. It's the pot calling the kettle black. The blind leading the blind. We are saved by grace. Well, I meditated. At that time, I met a teacher, a young man and I looked into his eyes and I had that same experience of seeing the infinite beyond.
Iain: That you'd had with that woman.
John: Freedom, yes. And I followed him out to America, to San Francisco. I was that desperate. I knew that's what I wanted, I didn't want anything else. So, as it were, I jumped off the precipice to him and while I was in America after I had been with him a few days...I remember it was a big meeting, and he looked at me and he pointed out my pride, my arrogance and my egoism, which completely crushed me. I was exposed in this room of, I suppose, a couple of hundred people. I'd been called in the room and I felt within me a monstrous, almost like a worm and I didn't know what to do with it at all. I was absolutely terrified, and I fled. Where did I flee to? I fled into the wilderness. I got a car and I just drove into the desert. And I thought I was going mad at that time. I had such a sense of evil within me and I didn't know how to deal with it at all. I meditated but somehow even meditation didn't deal with it and fearing I was really going to lose my wits [mind/ability to think] I took a job as a cook in a funny little motel/gas station, I worked in the kitchen there, frying eggs and things...and it was in the Maharvi desert, which is just on the border of Arizona. Surrounded by desert-country. One day after work, I walked up the side of the valley, there was this little motel, this little spot at the side of the valley, I sat on a rock and I think I put my head in my hands and I think I just was finished then. And someone came and stood beside me. I didn't see anybody, I didn't hear anybody, no man was involved at all but I felt there was a presence beside me. I suppose it was Jesus. I never doubted it. It was nothing to do with the church, nothing to do with religion at all. And I didn't really notice any difference, the depression didn't end but I wrote a poem, that's right "depression didn't end but from then on I had a friend." I certainly didn't have any human friend at that time. And then a few more months passed and I ended this job with a pocket full of money, so once more I hired a car and had a wonderful time exploring the western states, the cowboy country and more animals and more beloved prairie, then I came home and once again in this awful abyss of not knowing what to do.
Iain: I just want to...so, we have to finish...let's call this part one...so what the breakthrough was for you was the appearance of what you felt might have been, could be Jesus. It was about having a companion, a friend, a support, a guide...am I using the right words?
John: I think you are making too much of it. I wouldn't use any of those words, it was less defined. It was very undefined. Soon after I got back, I had some friends then that did healing and I remember they prayed over me and it was extraordinary, I felt like, I found myself screaming, I was thrown into the ground and something was expelled, some revolting thing came out of my mouth, it opened my mouth so wide that my mouth split but what came out? I never saw it. I suppose, one idea expelled by another. And just before that happened, I had gone into a job centre and I was invited to an open day and I was invited to go to Nottingham University to study Russian as a very mature student.
Iain: Okay, we're going to stop there because that's a great start for part two. So, thank you very much for doing part one. Thank you everyone for watching part one, here with John and we will see you again for part two.
End of Part One
Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable.
RAIN is a useful acronym for the four key principles of mindful transformation of difficulties. RAIN stands for Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Nonidentification. A line from Zen poetry reminds us, “the rain falls equally on all things.” Like the nourishment of outer rain, the inner principles of RAIN can be applied to all our experience, and can transform our difficulties.
Recognition is the first step of mindfulness. When we feel stuck, we must begin with a willingness to see what is so. It is as if someone asks us gently, “What is happening now?” Do we rely brusquely, “Nothing”? Or do we pause and acknowledge the reality of our experience, here and now? With recognition we step out of denial. Denial undermines our freedom. The diabetic who denies his body is sick and ignores its needs is not free. Neither is the driven, stressed-out executive who denies the cost of her lifestyle, or the self-critical would-be painter who denies his love of making art. The society that denies its poverty and injustice has lost a part of its freedom as well. If we deny our dissatisfaction, our anger, our pain, our ambition, we will suffer. If we deny our values, our beliefs, our longings, or our goodness, we will suffer.
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any outer tradition,” observes Zen teacher Toni Packer. “It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
With recognition our awareness becomes like the dignified host. We name and inwardly bow to our experience: “Ah, sorrow. Now excitement. Hmm, yes, conflict; and yes, tension. Oh, now pain, yes and now, ah, the judging mind.” Recognition moves us from delusion and ignorance toward freedom. “We can light a lamp in the darkness,” says the Buddha. We can see what is so.
The next step of RAIN is acceptance. Acceptance allows us to relax and open to the facts before us. It is necessary because with recognition there can come a subtle aversion, a resistance, a wish it weren’t so. Acceptance does not mean that we cannot work to improve things. But just now, this is what is so. In Zen they say, “If you understand, things are just are they are. And if you don’t understand, things are still just as they are.”
Acceptance is not passivity. It is a courageous step in the process of transformation. “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is nice,” Zorba the Greek declares. “To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble.” Acceptance is a willing movement of the heart to include whatever is before it. In individual transformation we have to acknowledge the reality of our own suffering. For social transformation we have to start with the reality of collective suffering, of injustice, racism, greed, and hate. We can transform the world just as we learn to transform ourselves. As Carl Jung comments, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.”
With acceptance and respect, problems that seem intractable often become workable. A man began to give large doses of cod liver oil to his Doberman because he had been told that the stuff was good for dogs. Each day he would hold the head of the protesting dog between his knees, forces its jaws open, and pour the liquid down its throat. One day the dog broke loose and the fish oil spilled on the floor. Then, to the man’s great surprise, the dog returned to lick the puddle. That is when the man discovered that what the dog had been fighting was not the oil but his lack of respect in administering it. With acceptance and respect, surprising transformations can occur.
Recognition and acceptance lead to the third step of RAIN, investigation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “seeing deeply.” In recognition and acceptance we recognize our dilemma and accept the truth of the whole situation. Now we must investigate more fully. Buddhism teaches that whenever we are stuck, it is because we have not looked deeply enough into the nature of the experience.
Buddhist practice systematically directs our investigation to four areas that are critical for understanding and freedom. These are called the four foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind, and dharma—the underlying principles of experience.
Here is how we can apply them when working with a difficult experience. Staring with investigation in the body, we mindfully locate where our difficulties are held. Sometimes we find sensations of heat, contraction, hardness, or vibration. Sometimes we notice throbbing, numbness, a certain shape or color. We can investigate whether we are meeting this with resistance or with mindfulness. We notice what happens as we hold these sensations with mindfulness and kindness. Do they open? Are there other layers? Is there a center? Do they intensify, move, expand, change, repeat, dissolve or transform?
In the second foundation of mindfulness, we can investigate what feelings are part of this difficulty. Is the primary feeling tone pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Are we meeting this feeling with mindfulness? And what are the secondary feelings associated with it? Often we discover a constellation of feelings.
A man remembering his divorce may feel sadness, anger, jealousy, loss, fear, and loneliness. A woman who was unable to help her addicted nephew can feel longing, aversion, guilt, desire, emptiness, and unworthiness. With mindfulness, each feeling is recognized and accepted. We investigate how each emotion feels, whether it is pleasant or painful, contracted or relaxed, tense or sad. We notice where we feel the emotion in our body and what happens to it as it is held in mindfulness.
Next comes the mind. What thoughts and images are associated with this difficulty? What stories, judgments, and beliefs are we holding? When we look more closely, we often discover that many of them are one-sided, fixed points of view or outmoded, habitual perspectives. When we see that they are only stories, they loosen their hold on us. We cling less to them.
The fourth foundation to investigate is called mindfulness of the dharma. Dharma is an important and multifaceted word that can mean “the teachings and the path of Buddhism.” It can also mean “the truth, the elements and patterns that make up experience.” In mindfulness of the dharma we look into the principles and laws that are operating. We can notice if an experience is actually as solid as it appears. Is it unchanging or is it impermanent, moving, shifting, re-creating itself? We notice if the difficulty expands or contracts the space in our mind, if it is in our control or if it has its own life. We notice if it is self-constructed. We investigate whether we are clinging to it, struggling with it, or simply letting it be. We see whether our relationship to it is a source of suffering or happiness. And finally, we notice how much we identify with it. This leads us to the last step of RAIN, nonidentification.
In nonidentification we stop taking the experience as “mine” or part of “me.” We see how identification creates dependence, anxiety, and inauthenticity. In practicing nonidentification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, is this who I really am? We see the tentativeness of this identity. Instead of identification with this difficulty, we let go and rest in awareness itself. This is the culmination of releasing difficulty through RAIN.
One Buddhist practitioner, David, identified himself as a failure. His life had many disappointments, and after a few years of Buddhist practice, he was disappointed by his meditation too. He became calmer but that was all. He was still plagued by unrelenting critical thoughts and self-judgments, leftovers from a harsh and painful past. He identified with these thoughts and his wounded history. Even the practice of compassion for himself brought little relief.
Then, during a ten-day mindfulness retreat, he was inspired by the teachings on nonidentification. He was touched by the stories of those who faced their demons and freed themselves. He remembered the account of the Buddha, who on the night of his enlightenment faced the armies and temptations of Mara, a powerful demon of Buddhist folklore who personifies our difficulties and obstacles on the path. David decided to stay up all night and directly face his own demons. For many hours, he tried to be mindful of his breath and body.
In between sittings, he took periods of walking meditation. At each sitting, he was washed over by familiar waves of sleepiness, body pains, and critical thoughts. Then he began to notice that each changing experience was met by one common element, awareness itself. In the middle of the night, he had an “aha” moment. He realized that awareness was not affected by any of these experiences, that it was open and untouched, like space itself. All his struggles, the painful feelings and thoughts, came and went without the slightest disturbance to awareness itself.
Awareness became his refuge. David decided to test his realization. The meditation hall was empty so he rolled on the floor. Awareness just noticed. He stood up, shouted, laughed, made funny animal noises. Awareness just noticed. He ran around the room, he lay down quietly, he went outside to the edge of the forest, he picked up a stone and threw it, jumped up and down, laughed, came back and sat. Awareness just noticed it all. Finding this, he felt free. He watched the sun rise softly over the hills. Then he went back to sleep for a time. And when he reawakened, his day was fully of joy. Even when his doubts came back, awareness just noticed. Like the rain, his awareness allowed all things equally.
It would be too rosy to end this story here. Later in the retreat David again fell into periods of doubt, self-judgement, and depression. But now, even in the middle of it, he could recognize that it was just doubt, just judgment, just depression. He could not take it fully as his identity anymore. Awareness noticed this too. And was silent, free.
Buddhism calls nonidentification the abode of awakening, the end of clinging, true peace, nirvana. Without identification we can live with care, yet we are no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self. We see the secret beauty behind all that we meet. Mindfulness and fearless presence bring true protection. When we meet the world with recognition, acceptance, investigation, and nonidentification, we discovery that wherever we are, freedom is possible, just as the rain falls on and nurtures all things equally.
Excerpted from Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are by Jack Kornfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jack Kornfield. By permission of Shambhala Productions. Available wherever books are sold.
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Below the mind there is a beautiful, inarguable, direct experience that you are. I invite you to notice this fact: the felt sense of presence and all the flavors of what it is like to be, right now, going nowhere. When we are invited here, when we land in this moment, we find the simplicity and nourishment that emanate from the core of our being as we rest from the outer world. To the extent we can drop our attention away from the content of thought and open ourselves to this holy dimension of life, to presence, we are fed. We are zeroed and soothed in this stillness, resting from all of the things we've created, all the messes we've made and the victories we've had. For a time, we can just rest in a dimension deeper than thought, below the particulars, and drop into raw being.
Anything that arises to draw us away from noticing this moment, any struggles or suffering, are the essential arguments we have with our existence and places where our pain obscures the truth. None of these will be mended or addressed outside ourselves. No matter what we look for outside of ourselves in relating with others, these essential issues are ours to become conscious of, own and resolve or we will export the responsibility for it onto others and create messes.
The fact of our human predicament is underscored when relating to other human beings. How do we stay close to each other and clear in ourselves when we are faced with the simultaneous combination of our timeless depth of presence, and our shadowy collection of misguided creature motivations? We can feel pretty peaceful and perfect sitting on our cushions, but in a split second, even the tiniest little exchanges with others can take us away from this perfection into confusion. We must reclaim this ground of being as our sanctuary and resource for returning to sanity, especially in the presence of other beings. Centering in grounded presence isn’t just for the meditation hall but for every breath we take.
There are few places in life where we are more invested than in our relationships and thus relating intimately combines both love and challenge. The love makes it difficult to blow off what arises in the context of relating, which brings us closer to the inner conflicts we’d rather not face. This is one of the beauties of relationship: when we love someone, when we really value the connection we have with them, we tend to be more willing to look into what we are carrying — the things that flummox us or that we are unconscious of — in order to keep the channel between us clear. When something or someone truly matters to us, when there is something we deeply know we are for or is for us, it creates a cauldron that holds a fire. If we face the fire, it has the power to deconstruct the false in us.
Relationship is the end of spiritual bypassing. We can get by for a while on the high of romance and make a life out of avoiding things, but deep relating inevitably brings us to the heart of what matters. Rumi has a poem where he asks, “My darling, how can I love you more?” In this poem, he is constantly asking his love, “Help me refine my heart, help me refine my approach so that I may spill my devotion in a way that is useful to you.” This can be both thrilling and horrifying because when we ask, “How can I love you more?” or “Can you tell me about another little piece of my shadow that affects you?” your partner might just answer!
There is nothing sweeter than sitting with another human being or beings in the full realization of the Holy, looking into their eyes, simply and fully here. I invite you for a moment to picture and invoke the highest beauty you have experienced in the company of another being. To seed yourself with the possibility of this deep sweetness, whether it’s invoked by a cat, a child, a friend, a lover or a teacher. In my experience, the deepest beauty in relating occurs when we stop and rest in presence, and the two-ness is dissolved in the light of shared being. With this taste of sweetness, let yourself rest into the ground and abide in being, allowing your system to picture this sweet otherness as you directly experience grounding in your own sovereign, felt existence.
Now, I invite you to imagine a challenging moment you have experienced while relating with another being. Imagine resting in the same way in the middle of it, allowing whatever is triggered to coexist with breath and ground and a sense of your own sovereign being. When things start to get rough, at the soonest opportunity, it serves us to do what Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.” In other words, get thee to zero, to virginity, to virgin-land, to sovereignty — just here, resting as simple being. Before taking one more step or uttering one more word, stop and soak in the Holy.
Hafiz says to make a list of your top three priorities, and then follows that by saying, if they are not “God, God, God,” then you’re in trouble. Nowhere is this more useful to remember than in challenging moments of relating. This right here, this being, this zero is a foundation, a haven, a sanctuary. This is the portable phone’s charging base. We need to return to it regularly when we are relating to other people. It gives us the capacity to snip anything strange that is growing between us, to cut any malignancy or falseness in a moment with the willingness to go nowhere, to get nothing, to humble ourselves, to lose everything, to return to zero. When our relationships are ruled by this commitment to the ground of being, it can only contribute to relating from what is true in an enduring and fulfilling way.