J. Randall Ory
30 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 4: Vision
Most mornings in my house there is the constant tension of kids that want to get up early and adults that want to sleep in as late as possible. We have three kids, and one in particular that struggles with sleep the most, struggles to fall asleep and stay asleep. That’s my oldest, who also has ADD and Autism, and who is usually the first up. There are seasons when he’s waking up as early as 4am, but mostly around 6. One kid up at six is usually not bad, but add in one or both of the other two, and things can get loud. It seems we’re always wrestling to teach them to be quiet, so we can sleep. But I’ve been thinking about that lately, about why we want to sleep in, and why they’re raring to go at 6am. I’ve realized that it’s because they’re always eager to embrace each new day. They have a lust for life, and look forward to what each day brings. As adults, sometimes we don’t have the same kind of gusto for each new day. We’ve been there, and been around long enough to know that any given day can bring good and bad, so there’s no reason to rush into what may not be worth it anyway. But, when it comes to stillness, I don’t want us to mistake that for a lack of excitement or exuberance for life. Inner stillness isn’t the same as external quiet. In fact, inner stillness can bring that same excitement my kids have to embrace each morning with eager expectation, because it restores the flavor and fervor of life. Not only does this reconnection to God as our Divine director bring rest from much of what can sour life, but it renews our hope for good days, and better days. We always have something to look forward to, when we are walking with God through seasons of growth, harvest, peace, and newness. The normal monotony of predictable adult life, where everything feels mapped out and set, gets replaced by the rhythms of a God revealing ever new things about who we are and what we were meant to do. It is a downward stumble for the ego into death, but an upward renewal of our true self into the hopeful expectation for better days. God has good things for you. God is not predictable. But neither is God safe. The safe route is the boring, pre-prescribed path of external acquirement. It is the normalized routine of work and play with no great purpose, other than trying to punctuation the daily grind of survival with a few feel-good moments. We work to play, but hardly realize that we mostly just work without much thought to what we’re working for. But life with God is all play. Even our work takes on a different meaning and purpose with God. Stillness isn’t the antithesis of fun, it’s the door that opens to it. Remember, stillness is an inner state of being, where our will to get what we want is laid in a grave so that God’s will for us can take over. God has a vision of life for you that’s better than any vision you could have. Your vision will always be tethered to what you think is possible, which is always a limited field. We view life as a zero-sum game, where the possibilities of our purpose and path are limited by our limiting circumstances and abilities.
We’re all born as a person, in a place and time, with a limited set of choices set out for us based on circumstances we didn’t choose. We live in a time where so many are chaffing against those limitations, frustrated by their lack of opportunity, especially in light of a culture where anything seems possible, but where only a few seem to be able to tap into those possibilities. Weren’t we all told as kids that anything was possible, that we could be anything we wanted, that life was ours for the taking and nothing stood in our way? But that’s not the reality of the world. So, it’s easy to grow up into disappointment, resentment, and victimhood. You make the best of what you have, lemonade from lemons and all, but sometimes that lemonade can seem pretty sour, especially when we see others sipping champagne. So, we suffer a reductionist vision of life. We seem to be slowly gliding down towards the ground while others seem to be soaring. This is life in a zero-sum game, and vision in a limited world where the few have the most, and most have so little. But God is not a zero-sum game. God is an eternal, inexhaustible energy that is ever new. We know by now that the energy of the universe is constant (The First Law of Thermodynamics). It does not diminish, die, or go away, it just transforms. God is the source of that energy, which is ever in the process of renewal, and has ever new things for you. The trick, and the irony is that God’s vision for you is not an open field with limitless possibilities, it is a narrow road which leads in one unified direction, to one single purpose. The limitless energy of God will lead you to one limited possibility, the very purpose for which you were made. We live in a world which tries to tell us we can be anything and do anything, if we just work hard enough and keep trying. But that is not reality. It is the false reality of the ego-self which cannot stand any limitation to its lust for self-indulgence. The vision of the ego-self is to get whatever it wants or feels like at any given moment. It will not accept limitation, because its appetite is for the unrestrained. The secret of the ego is that it really doesn’t want anything specific, it just wants to not be told what to do. The small self imagines true freedom and purpose as unrestrained access to everything. But the possibility of unlimited everything brings the reality of no focused purpose at all. There is no vision for life without limiting the field of possibility. Focused vision, by definition, means eliminating many possibilities for the one.
The problem for most of us is that we simply don’t have any idea what to do with our lives. It doesn’t help to tell me I can be anything I want. First, I can clearly see that this is a lie. Not even all the money, power, and access in the world can allow for that. An old, rich and powerful person will still die. Money doesn’t buy life, and it cannot buy purpose either. Every one of us, no matter who we are, are limited people with a limited set of possible paths to follow. We never get to choose whatever we want. We must always choose from what is available. Whether we like it or not, we cannot be anything we want. It’s actually quite absurd to tell me I can be anything. Pure biology speaks to my own limitation. But the ego-self is ever trying to rebel against God’s reality. Plastic surgery, hair dye, clothes, it’s all window dressings on a soul that cannot change, it can merely discover its true identity. God’s path is never about us deciding what we want or who to be, but deciding to be and do what God created us for. Personal Transformation is an uncovering. It’s not a metamorphosis from one thing to something completely different, but from the false self to the true. We do change, in a way, but it is only a perceived change. We truly can’t be anyone other than who we are. Modern science may have gotten pretty creative in its ability to dabble at the fringes of individuality and personal choice, but we cannot truly make ourselves anything more than what we already are. We can simply choose to fully embrace and discover who we are, or cover over that with the made-up identity of the ego self, playing dress up like little kids with a box of costumes. Don’t hear me speaking against the modern dilemma of gender identity and confusion, or dismissing that. It is a real thing, and actually confirms what I’m talking about. We are so confused because we’ve believed a lie, and gotten lost far down the path of thinking we have anything to do what making ourselves into anything. When you start with identity as a blank slate, what you get is confusion. The idea that I can be anything doesn’t help me be anything, it eventually leads me to be nothing. As humans, we don’t know how to be anything, we only know how to be one specific thing. Trying to be whatever we want is confusing. We will never figure out what to be. We will often likely decide to try and be something, but it is always a hollow identity. We know it is arbitrary, and can also be arbitrarily overturned. It’s why the ego is so fragile, and easily offended, because it has based its identity on unstable things. Any identity founded on the idea of unlimited possibility is grounded, not in the freedom to become something, but the doubt that we are never truly anything at all. We cannot make meaning out of nothing. It is confusing to believe we can be anything, while trying to be one specific thing. We will never really land upon a stable identify when anything seems possible. We must come to see that God has grounded us in the goodness of limitation, to only be the one person we were made to be. I think we realize that deep down. Even if we don’t, we still suffer from the lack of a unified direction, because that is what it means to have vision for our lives.
To have vision literally means that we can see, in some way, the place to where we are going. Vision actually brings the hopeful expectation that we are heading somewhere, and also leaving certain things behind. Our thirst for newness often gets displaced in our quest for new things. External acquirement is the false fulfillment of our desire to be heading somewhere new in the purpose of our being. We really do want to believe that there is a unified vision for our lives, that there are new things for us around every corner of the path we are walking in life. This is part of why I love hiking. I love the excitement of seeing what’s up ahead on the path. It’s the adventure of the life we were made for. Picture it this way. You are standing in a large, open field. Overhead is a beautiful, blue sky dotted with small, marshmallow clouds. Green grass stretches far away all around you. To the right there is a long unending view of mountains stretching beyond your field of vision. To the left a gentle slope to a faraway river. Behind is a dense forest pierced by light like little sun ribbons. Ahead are open, rolling hills that disappear into the distance. You are like a dot on a grid with lines extending out in every direction, like some kind of geographic spectrogram connected to an infinity of end points. You could follow any one of those lines, in any direction, to any of so many places, but none of which you can see. You have no idea where any of these lines lead, or what the road of each will be like. How do you choose which way to go? The mountains seem so pristine. Beautiful and proud hunks of stone, covered in trees like the hair on your head, but you know that mountain hiking can be hard and treacherous. The river looks inviting, but you know that water can turn into uncontrollable rapids with undertows that can be deadly. The woods are also inviting, but they are also dark and filled with bears, mountain lions, and many other harmful possibilities. The hills seem innocent, calm, and pleasant, but you have no idea where they go either, or whether the walk will be hard or easy. How do you decide what direction to choose? This is life without vision. Then imagine you get the flash of a picture in your head, a feeling in your heart, and an instinct in your gut. You see yourself climbing up a mountain, you somehow feel the goodness and rightness of that image in unexplainable ways. Also imagine that you are able to trust in that momentary vision, and decide to set out towards the mountains. It was a vague sense, but also clear, and has enabled you to set out and at least begin down a path. There will continue to be the need for further vision, because direction is a continual choice, but faith is the ability to keep going in one direction until you are directed elsewhere. That is how life with God works. We are not struggling to decide what direction to take, in a limitless field of possibilities. We are struggling to discern what direction God has for us, knowing that walking any path entails the possibility of a single outcome towards a single goal. But how can we possibly be in tune with God in a way that allows us to really discern that Divinely delivered direction? The answer is stillness.
We will never land upon one direction if we believe any direction will do. We will wander around and waver between so many directions, and end up walking around lost, never getting anywhere specific without specific instructions on where to go. But we will never live life without vision. If we do not step into the vision we were created for, a default vision will take its place. We may think we have chosen that alternate vision, but we’re really only choosing within a vision. The truth of human reality is that we never choose our vision, it can only be given to us. We will either follow God’s vision for our lives, or default to a lessor vision. I’ve already talked about this lessor vision, though in different ways. That alternate vision is self-autonomy. It’s how the ego-self gets created. It entails the idea that we are independent individuals able to choose our own way. It puts us as the vision casters of our own lives, but it puts us in a place where we must handle all the raw data of life on our own. To do that, we must insulate, isolate, and numb. We cannot handle all that data on our own. We must create filters in order to keep from being overwhelmed. Those filters take on many forms. They come to us through all the big human labels like religion, government, sociology, phycology, and biology. They are ways we separate the world into ever more and more fractured halves, because we cannot handle reality at full force. The energy of reality, both positive and negative (God and God-absence) is too powerful for us. It is the raw data stream of the material and spiritual world. So, we insulate by division. We filter through discrimination, or as my spiritual teacher Richard Rohr puts it, through dualistic thinking. We decide to simply eliminate huge swaths of data in order to pare it down to more manageable amounts. We cannot handle the raw data on our own. The vision of self-autonomy is an illusion, which creates all our dysfunction in a world too big for us to handle. In this framework we make choices through elimination. We must determine direction through separation and discrimination. We must pare reality down to what is “right” for us and what is “wrong.” How else could we manage something so large. So, we fall into this independent ego-self by default, because it is the only alternate way to determine identity and direction apart from God. But the ego-self is a negative energy, by the very nature of its pre-determined vision, because it starts with the premise, “I must define myself.” It is Atheistic at its core (no offense to Atheists). Holding a mental “belief” in some kind of God while living in the vision of self-autonomy functionally denies the reality of God. We are what we practice.
We often think self-determination equals a self-created vision, not just choices within a pre-determined vision. We think we have decided who we are, where we are, by making choices about our lives. I’m not denying that. What I’m saying is that we don’t realize that these are choices within the larger vision of no larger vision. We are operating in the biggest frame under a kind of anti-vision, a narrative which says there is no greater vision than our own ability to choose. Our purpose and meaning in life then becomes to create our own purpose and meaning, which is circular and relative. But in a world of infinite choices, we must create a mechanism for that kind of decision making. Limited beings with finite function facing an unlimited, infinite universe must fracture reality into something more manageable. We do this through the creation of the ego-self. The ego-self must eliminate large chunks of reality through dualistic selection. In other words, the small self, separated from the only source able to handle all reality, must create a small framework within which to choose its own direction. For the small self, standing on an open field of endless possibility is simply overwhelming. So, this small ego self must begin to manage the data through division. We could also call this the creation of human culture. It is the smaller field I create in order to pare down reality to a manageable sum. This is how it works. I am human, not animal. I am boy, not girl. I am white, not black. I am heterosexual, not homosexual. I am monotheistic, not pagan. I am Christian, not Atheist. I am Western, not Eastern. I am protestant, not Catholic. In all, this would not necessarily be a negative process, unless I end with the absolute declaration, “I am right, not wrong.” It is in that conclusion that I not only divide the world between what I am and am not, but what I see as good and bad; and as humans, we cannot see the world any other way. We will always, eventually translate our vision paradigm into a moral stance. We simply cannot help it. The autonomous self must believe that it has chosen, not just the best path for life, but the right path. Otherwise, we have no good impetus to follow that path. We will not live life without meaning. We have to know that what we are doing fits who we are, even when we have simply created who we are in order to know that. But here is the big dilemma. We cannot truly trick ourselves by telling ourselves we are on the right path. We cannot simply live life repeating the absurd mantra, “I know that I know that I know that I know.” I cannot “know” my life is right by simply telling myself that I know it is right. We always look for some kind of outside source to affirm the rightness of our self-created identity. To affirm our self-created identity, we must have self-created systems of truth. The Atheist cannot simply say “I am right in being an Atheist,” but also that Atheism itself is right, which means that all non-Atheism is wrong. We will not believe something is good for us unless we also believe it is good for everyone. The ego-self must impose its self-referential truth system on the world, because that is the only way to legitimize that system as true. We do not except small truth, because we were made to live in a world with big truth. What is true for me must be true for everyone, or it cannot be true for me. We understand innately the need for truth to be universal, or it simply cannot be true. But when we start with the idea of relative truth (I can make my own meaning), then what we end up with is a relative source of universal truth (what is true for me is true for everyone). The problem is not the choices we’ve made, whatever they may be, but that we began with the idea that we could make those choices to begin with. Limited beings deciding to take on an unlimited universe is the anti-vision, the largest frame of meaning we are operating under, which also denies the largest frame of God.
There is only one true, unifying vision for the world. That vision is what we often call God. It is simply the idea that we need a single source for reality, and that reality is simply too large for us to handle on our own. So, we are faced with a vision choice, make up our own or tap into something larger. Of course, human culture, even as diverse as it is, can coalesce into a larger vision. It’s what we might call group thinking, or group vision-casting. But it is no better to create meaning collectively than it is individually. The source is still human, and usually still only the few casting a vision for the whole. The source is still finite beings facing infinite possibility. We may be able to comfortably fall under the spell of group thinking, and believe we are right because we are in the “right” group, but it still all ends in the same place, and produces the same result. It is still that small, anti-vision which produces competing systems of right and wrong. What we need is a way to walk back up, out of these small systems, and into the largest system of all. That is the spiritual journey, the journey back to our whole self. We must find our way out of small truth and back into big truth, out of fractured reality and into holistic reality. That reality is God. Only God is able to help us sort through all the raw data of an infinite universe without the divisiveness of dualistic thinking. This is where the practice of stillness comes in. Think of it this way. Think of reality like an infinite river, flowing under the black sky of the star-lit universe. You can picture it like Thor’s rainbow colored Bifrost in Asgard, or Neo’s green data grid in the Matrix movies if that helps. Imagine you are floating along in this infinite data stream, a small human speck with no ability to get your bearing, or control your direction. You try to touch your feet to the river bottom. To your surprise, the bottom is close. Your feet graze the bottom but cannot get a firm grip. The river current is too strong. Then you notice in your hand a magical staff, called your will. It is the only power you have. It is the power of choice. What do you do with it? You feel lost in this river, helpless, overwhelmed. Then, in your mind you hear two voices, one is yours, the other you don’t know. Your voice says, “cast the staff downward,” the other voice says “lift the staff up.” You decide to lift up the staff, like Aquaman’s trident, and strike it hard down toward the river bottom. Instantly the river divides in two. You go one way, and the rest of the river goes another. The data of reality has been split. But it is still so massive. You still feel lost in the massive river of reality, swept along uncontrollably. So, you strike the staff again. The river splits again. You do this again and again until the river becomes a small, narrow, gently flowing stream. Finally, you are able to stand up and walk. Now you are finally in control. However, what you are in control of is such a small fraction of reality, you don’t even know just how small, and just how fractured. Still, it is the best you can do, given the circumstances. You realize that there is a greater reality still out there, floating somewhere far way, and that you are now vastly disconnected from it. But you are at least content with the idea that you have reduced reality to a manageable size, for you. Then imagine you hear that other voice again, speaking to you from within. It sounds good, and right, as it says, “lift up the staff of your will, so I can pull you up.” Now that you feel more calm, in a more manageable stream, you decide to give this second option a try. You lift up the staff, and some invisible force begins to lift you up out of your small stream. Just as your feet lift out of the water, you get scared, you feel your own sense of control slipping away. You feel a “no” rise up in your soul, the invisible force lets go and you fall back down into your stream. You hear the voice again, and decide to try again. This time you get a little higher before that “no” rises up and you fall back down. But you keep going, getting higher and higher each time. As you rise, you begin to see some of those others streams you’d split from in order to form your own. Each time you rise, you see more, and each time you fall back down you experience a gentle landing, but the inner experience of falling feels painful. You know you must make a choice. Keep going up, or just stay down. This is a picture of the spiritual journey, back out of our small stream of reality and to the largest frame of reality.
The goal is to get to a place where we are floating above that stream, not caught helplessly in it. The only thing we can do with the infinite stream of reality, on our own, is divide it into very small, manageable parts. We cannot rise above it on our own. The goal is to let God take hold of us, and lift us up out of it. We do this through the practice of stillness. We learn to let go of our control over reality, which necessarily fractures it, and give control to God. When we are completely still, not trying to manage or control reality, then we are in a place where God is managing it for us. We are floating above the data stream, able to see it all clearly, but not pushed around and drowning down in it. We can then still experience that infinite data stream without being overwhelmed by it. We are simply floating above it, held by God, who then begins to pull bits of it out for us to experience as God decides. We are able to then live life in full view of reality, because we have released our desire to control it for ourselves. We are then operating by the will of God, guided by God’s vision of reality, instead of our own. How we experience reality is through our three knowing centers. Floating above the data stream allows us to experience everything happening around us, mentally, emotionally, bodily, without feeling overwhelmed by all that experience. It opens us up to the recognition of all that data in a way where we know it cannot overwhelm us, because God is guiding us through it. God, then, becomes our filter, instead of us. God decides how we experience what we experience, and why. We get to “see” all reality holistically, but in a way that we only experience it individually as God intends. In other words, I’m not literally experiencing all the raw data of the world simultaneously, at full force. God has me in a place of inner stillness, of surrender to his/her will concerning my experience, which allows for the space to register any part of that data separately as God decides. I see the full stream of infinite reality below me, no longer caught up in its powerful current, but through my experiential Knowing Centers, I only feel the bits of data God draws up out of that stream into my individual being. God becomes the processer for me, not filtering out any of the raw data, but filtering my experience of it through my knowing centers, which connects to my Being centers through the Soul. What then registers in my consciousness through my experience of the world is what God decides. I can then engage the fullness of reality in small doses, experientially (through the Knowing centers), while understanding it holistically by the vision God is building in my being (through my Being centers). God is involved in the whole process, selecting the right data, at the right time, in order to let me experience what I need, and then also helping guide the Being centers in what to do with that data, how to interpret it, and know what to do about it. It goes back to the three questions I’ve developed when encountering the data in the Soul Center, 1. Where is this coming from, 2. What does it mean, and 3. What should I do about it. But it all starts with the faith to know that God is over the whole process, beginning to end. God has carefully selected my human experience of the world in order to help me begin to understand reality as it truly is.
Wow!!! I know that was a lot to take in. I hope I’ve painted a clear enough picture of this whole process, enough for us to keep moving along in our understanding of how all this works. I know that it’s an incomplete picture, with a lot of questions still remaining. But the point, at this point, is that we must come to understand the difference between our own vision casting and God’s. Ours will always create a fractured, small, dysfunctional view of reality, which distorts us and everything around us. Gods will always lift us back up to the fullest view of reality, which is cohesive and connective. It allows us to “see” everything, while protecting us from experiencing everything in ways too overwhelming. As we learn to quiet our own will, to be still and let God do the processing, we come to see the world as one large river, operating together as a whole. We are simply one small part of that whole. We cannot disconnect in our attempt to process reality in manageable bites, and still be connected to reality in ways which allow for proper union without discrimination or distain. Then, there is no longer our “right” way or truth, there is only one Way, one Truth, which is what we call God. What is wrong with the world is not our truth verses false truth, but our separateness from all Truth, as God. It is separating truth as right and wrong which separates us from each other. Truth is the energy of the universe connecting all things. Disconnection is non-truth, because it is counter to true reality. There actually is no such thing as false truth, just Truth and non-truth, which we could also call Being and non-being. The Christian idea of Hell is essentially non-being, as created by our disconnection to God as pure Being. Truth is not the practice of the right kinds of moral action, but the practice of life fully connected to God, who connects us fully to reality. Non-truth is non-reality, or living in opposition to reality. That is also why we can frame all this in terms of love as the positive energy of the universe, and selfishness as the negative. Stillness brings us to a place where we stop trying to split reality into what we feel is right or wrong for us, and allow God to show us that all true reality is good. Then, I no longer define what is good by what I am, or am not, but by only what I am, and what is. True reality is the connection of all things under the vision of God, which is the energy of love for all things, and allows all things to simply be what they are, and be loved as they are, with no effort on their own to be loved for anything but simply being what they are. We stop being what we are when we reject God’s vision of a unified universe which is good, and start fracturing the universe into what we think is good or bad, based solely on our need to reduce reality to a manageable size. The core dysfunction is self-autonomy, the attempt to create our own vision for ourselves, and the world. The practice of stillness is simply that stepping up out of our fractured, small self and back into God, which also restores us to our whole self. Stillness is called negation, because it is also the non-action of ceasing in our own effort to understand and determine our own reality, through our own vision making. It means we no longer walk through the world deciding what is good, for us individually, or the world at large. We cannot do one without the other. We cannot come back into God’s view of reality until we cease from trying to manifest our own. That pulling back is into a space we can call stillness, because we are then in a position where we are simply waiting for God to meet us, and begin taking over the process of determining where we should be going, what we should be doing, and thus who we are. Direction equals identity, because direction comes out of relationship with God.
The most amazing truth about vision is that getting somewhere is not the point of life, or the heart of our identity. God pointing us in the direction he/she created us for doesn’t focus our life in that direction, but delivers us from that wrong focus, in order to give us the space to simply be in love with the universe right where we are. The true enjoyment of life isn’t in getting anywhere, not in accomplishment, but in simply being with God. When we know, in the most trusting way, that we are heading in the only direction of life we were made for, we no longer have to even focus on that. We can then just be content in every moment to focus on that moment alone. This is what Christianity calls eternity. It is the experience of being out-of-time; time being the perceived experience of moving from past to future, towards something and away from something. It is what we also misperceive as growing old, or dying. God exists in the eternal now, a state of ever-presence. Again, it is our self-autonomous attempt to create our own meaning the produces this false perception of time, and of always running out of time. God’s vision for us is to live as he/she does, in the eternal now. Thus, God’s vision for us is not about getting somewhere, or becoming someone, but simply being who we are with God in the now, which is the only place of true reality. This is also why stillness is the process and the result, which brings us to the place of peace, or Shalom. And we know when we are growing into this kind of peace, and when we are not. Stillness always produces more stillness, and peace more peace. Likewise, chasing after our own fulfillment, in our own strength, always produces more anxiety and fear. I know this is a lot to sit with, and consider. So let’s sit with it for a while, and pick back up with this idea of the practice of stillness and all it entails in our next discussion, where I’ll try to put all this together more clearly by plugging it into how it works in and with our three centers of Being and Knowing. Can you hold that tension for a while? I hope so. Until next time, keep trying to be still and let truth come to you.