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Going Outdoors to Enter the Presence

I am entering one of my periodic periods of great doubt. I have these on a fairly regular basis - once every five years, perhaps - and have come to see them as a sign of mental health.

For most seasons, I tend towards diligence and obedience. Once I have accepted a certain framework then I will stick to it with great persistence and not worry too much about the bigger picture. This way, I get things done.

But every five years or so, I will let it all fall apart - like clutching a handful of coloured straws too tightly, too long, and then letting them hit the floor in a startling, new pattern.

And that is happening around my meditation practice right now.

Like many folks, I have tended to use meditation to extend control over my mind. The “problem” is my unruly mind and the “solution” is tidying, ordering, understanding and then improving. This is a little like my ritual of clearing my writing desk: every week or so I take everything off my desk, polish the lovely wooden table, throw out all the circulars and unneeded papers, wash up all the cups, water the plants and fill the water jug. Then I can write and think and therapise more clearly.

But - despite being tidy - it’s still the same desk, still in the same office, still indoors.

Sometimes a real change of scenery is needed. I realise I have to get outside, work en plein air. I have to open the doors and step out with my notepad and sit on the steps among the ox-eyed daisies and valerian. Sometimes I feel that offices are not enough.

Likewise, sometimes “meditation” is not enough. Or, more precisely, I have to remember that the human practice of meditation is not a human life. It's a tool, not the material. It is the lathe, not the wood. And sometimes, I have to concentrate on the wood itself, not the tools.

Of course, most of us need to meditate - that is, it's good to turn our awareness consciously towards the nature of awareness. Most of us do need to tame the unruliness of our mind waves. But at a certain point, all liberating spiritual practice can turn into its opposite: it can become something imprisoning.

So in this period of healthy unravelling, I have taken my practice outdoors.

Indoors, I am often striving after presence. Creating it with my mental effort. But practising outdoors more and more, I have gradually come to realise that you enter into presence. Like you enter a grove of trees or you clamber into a lake or you walk into a gorge. It is not something you summon up from within - rather it's something you recognise all around you. And that outwardness flows into you from the outside.

And that process of immersion into presence happens most easily when you’re outdoors.

This makes sense to me on all sorts of levels. For the largest part of our evolutionary journey, we have lived outdoors. Doors, indeed walls, are a (relatively) recent invention. And the sheltered, controlled indoor space is a blessing and a spell. We wonder why we cannot feel alive in our houses and our rooms but in some sense, our nervous systems are still a little bamboozled by the lack of air indoors, the steady temperature, the lack of green.

And, listen, I’m not suggesting we all throw away our house keys and live in hedges, but I am suggesting that that body-suffusing sense of aliveness and “I-am-here-ness” is much more accessible outdoors than in.

This is, in part, because the outdoors is more unpredictable. Our senses, nerves and cells are much more alert to the sounds, smells, airflows and sudden presence of Otherousness.

But also because we are entering Presence with a capital P when we step outside. Having your head under the open sky suddenly seems very central, like Jesus going out into the wilderness or always praying on the roof of the houses he visited, under the open sky. Because that is where he found the presence of God.

Buddhists don’t believe in God, but they let in the idea of Presence through the notion of the Dharmakaya. And while I don’t believe in a male deity that controls all things. I do have a strong sense that the Universe is numinous, alive with energy. And that this field of energy is sentient, conscious, and alive. And, one aspect of spiritual practice (perhaps the predominant aspect of spiritual practice) is allowing that numinosity to soak through us. To bathe in it and be certain that we are suffused.

What is significant here, I have realised, is the allowing part.

We are not engineering presence, or corralling it into a certain space. We are not creating it through our mental machinations or spiritual austerities. It is already here. Everywhere. What we need to do is relax, smile, listen, open, and enter into it.

Theologically speaking, Martin Luther’s critiqued the Catholic Church’s usurpation of that process, making believers dependent on a priest to experience God. And again the Catholic radical Ivan Illich’s critique of modern society extends that to the secular world. We are schooled into a system where only experts can do things for us and only certification and hoop-jumping matter. We could not possibly experience Presence without a certified expert at our side.

Just as the Reformation of the 16th Century and the Revolutions of the 1960s questioned all this, so - in its little way - my great Doubting in 2023 questions the certification and hoop-jumping of my Buddhist practice.

Bodyscans and Beingfulness, somatic protocols and tantric practices - all of the many ways I have tried to access more presence and be wiser amongst the quanta of existence - ultimately, I have to question whether they are all more forms of hoop-jumping and idiotification? Or more worrying still, perhaps they are all forms of the pernicious human belief that Presence can be controlled and understood and marshalled and ultimately exploited like we have controlled, marshalled, exploited and destroyed the natural abundance of the Planet Earth.

I know that’s quite a jump: from lying on the floor doing a body scan to massacring ecosystems. But I think it’s worth exploring.

Does the “indoors mind” not always tend towards domesticating and taming the wild exuberance of life? And at the furthest end of that domestication, is there not also a frightened lashing out at the unruly and alive? The panicky shutdown of the repressed: “Stay in your cupboard. Do not make my room untidy. Stay indoors”.

But you can only stay indoors so long before you starve.

Mingyur Rinpoche is a living example of this (I doff my metaphorical hat to him daily) because he literally ran outdoors for four years, grazing death and spending years in the wide open spaces of the Himalayas. You may know that I’m a great fan of the Tibetan yogi Milarepa who also spend the largest part of his life in mountain retreats and had very little time for the indoors.

Indoors is comfortable and we can get things done from indoors (I am indoors now writing this- though the door is wide open, letting in the morning air) but I am trying to remember that, as a species, we belong outside. And that the inherent wisdom of existence lives under the sky.

When you enter into presence. When you allow yourself to walk into the great space of it all around you - up into the sky, across to the horizon, in the bugs, in the birdsong, in the wind - then it’s very hard to maintain the idea of the controlling human mind, marshalling and corralling phenomena. The vividness of the Outdoors uproots the heretical belief that humans are responsible, in control, and in dominion over things. We’re not. We never were. And thank God and the Dharmakaya that we can let that delusion go.

I'd love to hear about your experience of 'great doubt' and how that might have refreshed your spiritual life. Or perhaps how practicing outdoors has benefited you.

If you'd like to explore "Sitting Out" practice together with me then we're spending a whole week immersing ourselves in the Outdoors Presence up on Holy Island this October. You'd be very welcome to join us there - though we ask people to have a fairly robust meditation practice for that one.

Otherwise, just step outside right now and sit for a stretch without your phone, let the Presence soak in!

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