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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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Dameon  Loukas
Dameon Loukas
Jul 05, 2023

In my opinion I think sometimes we assume we have doubt when it is matter of being able to consolidate various belief systems as whole. I know in my own experience when I’ve had doubts with faith, which is often, the root cause is usually because I believe I have to do one or the other. It’s that idea you have to believe in one system of thought or practice. This is the way we are trained when it comes to matters of faith. That doubt or conflict in a persons faith is really that person opening up their perception to something more or new. Rather than using this as a means to expand in whatever way, we rather reject…

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Ignacio Cantu
Ignacio Cantu
Jul 06, 2023
Replying to

Dameon: I followed Vajrayana Buddhism for a long time and had the fortune of finding a great teacher, the XII Gyalwang Drukpa, who often said "doubt is the king of demons; trust! But trust is not blind faith, but a reasoned examination of the teachings and the certainty that through them one can realize ultimate truth". By following his teachings I had a radical shift and realized who I am not, and what I am -what we all are- is an emptiness that knows itself and is conscious that it comes impossibly from nowhere, like sunlight without a sun! Now I know that all belief systems can be compatible, for they are simply pointers that show a path to the…

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Dearest Alistair! I am not really clear what it is that you doubt... not Presence, by the sound of it.


Your post made me think of two phrases - "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few" and "ditch the raft". Forget the hoop-jumping and let go - inside or out!


xxxx


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Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
Jul 04, 2023
Replying to

It’s precisely the hoops that I doubt. And am doing a periodic bonfire of the hoop mountain. X

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Newbie here, really knocked out by the wisdom, authenticity and richness of your writing; and enriched by the invitation to go out doors right now, which I took. I see 'Great Doubting' (or cycles of depression, another classic for many) as parts of us coming up to try and get attention. Often they are 'sat on' by spiritual managers who keep the system in check and balance through the rigours of spiritual practice. The wisdom of Dick Schwarz, founder of Internal Family Systems (which I am trained in) really resonates with me. He shares that that much as he loves mindfulness, he found it wasn't compassionate to just 'watch' everything that arises, as these were struggling parts of the psych…

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Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
Jul 04, 2023
Replying to

Hi Sarita! What a wonderful response. I too am a great fan of IfS and use it often in my therapy work.

You’re absolutely right that mindfulness is not enough - without that overarching compassion and wisdom.

What I find interesting in Schwartz’s writing about the Self is that he locates it as an instrinsic aspect of the personality - but in some essays I’ve read he also speaks about the Great Self beyond the personality. It’s not a thread he takes up explicitly in the training but I guess that is what I am gesturing towards in the Sitting OUT practice - that this wise and kindly Self is outside the personality structure and we can beneficially enter in…

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Hi Alistair,


I love your honoust words. I have had a hate-love story with my own Great Doubts.


When I was very young my family was active roman catholic. Later in my youth we stopped going to church and in my teens my parents explored new age and shamanism. At that time I developed an allergy for spiritual leaders who hold The Thruth and even more for the way they were followed blindly. Yet I also experienced wisdom in some way in all these places.


During those years I also had several exeriences mainly out in nature which I call spiritual experiences: I feel tiny, yet deeply connected to the ‘Whole’. It feels out of time and space, yet fully…


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It's so good to read that I am not the only  one to experience doubt. For me I think it first happened in my late teens and I think I've been "seeking" ever  since and never really settling. I grew up in a Church of Scotland tradition but for various reasons increasingly felt alienated. As a student I encountered others who seemed to have some sort of direct communication with God and I remember thinking "what's wrong with me". I drifted away and started looking elsewhere reading about other traditions and trying meditation and. Quaker meetings but again struggled to connect. I enjoyed the fellowship but always felt I was missing something. 


I too most experience the sense of something…


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