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Engaging Emptiness: Stepping into the Mirror
A Thin Place Reflection, by Bill Halpin
For Conversation in The Thin Place
“Between Organized Religion & Personal Expressions of the Sacred” 24Feb.2000

Perhaps God’s name is a mirror that simply and silently waits. It waits to be seen and heard. It waits to be what is looking at it, to be what is listening to it. Perhaps God’s name is a mirror waiting, a reflecting invitation waiting for our true reflection to be seen, and our true name to be heard, truly and compassionately.

I wish to explore “Engaging Emptiness” as both the thin place and the activity that occurs there, between organized religions and our individual personal expressions of the sacred.

I will play with the image of  mirror. I will use the word “contemplative” as one engaged in a longing…loving…looking.

In his essay “The Mystery of Shared Intent” Gerald May in the Winter 1999 issue of Shalem News writes about the institute’s early days when several people shared a longing but had no name for it. He writes: “The simple experience of being together in silence was deeply affirming and was enhanced by working together at various practices, sharing our experiences, and uncritically listening to one another.”

This is a lovely way to begin something!

Mirrors give back what they are given. Usually, just as it is given – same colors, same size, same time. Mirrors are very faithful, troublingly so. Some days what they return seems wonderful in appearance. Some days, just awful. Mirrors are many, and they are everywhere.

Richard Rohr, in Raven’s Bread (Nov.1999) a newsletter subtitled, Food for Those in Solitude, writes he’d spent last lent in hermitage “…looking until my eyes were filled and thinking escaped me. Then, at last, I knew by not knowing. And I knew Him. And ‘I’ was of no concern.” Rohr wrote that:

It was good, for a change, to be a ‘Clandestine Christian’ – to return to the One Mirror, where all is mirrored in truth and compassion, without all the distractions of group think and group identity and group polarizations. I wonder if this is not the way through our present morass within churches and in our cultural hall of mirrors. What else will clean the mirror?

It seems that it is the things we cannot do anything with, the useless things, and the things we cannot do anything about, the necessary things, which change us and transform us. They do something with us instead of us doing something with them!  We are freed from the tyranny and illusion of control. It is often people outside of denominations and ideologies who are most free to be guided by these “agendas from God.” Perhaps because they have no choice.

There has to be some degree of withdrawal from the revolving hall of mirrors in order to find oneself primarily mirrored by God. This is an urgent need, not just for me personally, but also for a culture that seems lost in monthly media dramas, projections and conversations that merely fill up the time and temporarily assuage the loneliness. We feel socially contagious today, and no one is benefiting from it. We tend to mirror group feelings instead of knowing who we really are.

Rohr shares a quote from a Moslem mystic, Ibn al-Arabi, (1165-1240), that, Rohr says, delighted him for days on end while in hermitage: “God sighs to become known in us. God is delivered from solitude by the people in whom God reveals himself. The sorrow of the unknown God is softened through and in us.” Rohr concludes by saying: “That’s enough work for all our remaining years. All we can be is transparent and vulnerable. Our authority will be the authority of those [who] have passed through – and come out the other side – dead and alive.”

Richard Rohr leaves the “mirror image “ there. I want to take it one step further for this Thin Place Reflection.   To engage emptiness, that open space between organized religion and personal expressions of the sacred, we step into the mirror, or the “One Mirror.” What does it mean to step into the mirror? It means that all reflecting-of-other is done away with. It means that there is no you, no I, to be reflected back. This is not an eradicating or destruction of what we typically think of as “me” – rather, it is a recognition of our true identity, what Jung called the Selbstverwirklichung, “the Self realizing itself.” Jung wrote in “Conscious, Unconscious, and Individuation,” in the Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness, that:

Individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being, and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” (zum eigen Selbst werden, “becoming one’s own Self”) or “self-realization” (Selbstverwirklichung, “the Self realizing itself”).

If stepping into the mirror were possible, would it be a desirable thing to do? And even if desirable, who would do it?

I think the contemplative would do it. I think the contemplative, (the word might be translated “the longing loving looker”) would enter his/her very looking, and grow tired of trying to find something, or if found, tired of trying either to possess it, or even describe it. The contemplative would, in the words of Hui Neng, no longer look at something, but as something, no longer look at reality but as reality.

The contemplative desires to step into the mirror to accomplish 3longings:

1.      To be one as God is one and all else is one, that is, awake to one’s true nature. (And here I caution myself that I am not talking of some vague or overarching engulfing “One” into which we fall, losing what we’ve known as our separate selves, our individual egos). Rather, to become one, as each is one, as God is one, is to be what the Japanese word Jitai means, to be Itself). To be “itself” is to be what one is. Often this is called one’s “true self.” This entails a loss of comparison or contrasting, object relation, dualistic  thinking, not-good-enough, not-there-yet. It is also an arrival, or, if you will, a gain, (although there is nothing to be gained).
The arrival is at one’s own reality, one’s true reality. (Did I say “at?”) The arrival is “as” one’s true reality. You are what you are – as – I am what I am.
This sense of “one” feels to me something I might be less afraid of, more willing to consider falling into, knowing that what falls away is the critical or judging, unneeded, or excess (possibly untrue) additions or accretions added to what, who, how I am.

2.      The contemplative steps into the mirror so as to see, truly, what is to be seen.
To see truly what is to be seen is to see what-you-are looking at. In Zen terms, you see what is seeing you. In other words – what you are looking for is what is looking for you; what you are looking at is what is looking at you. By stepping into the mirror we become what is reflecting. We are no longer what is reflected back, we are reflection itself. Blue comes, blue. Snow comes, snow. Red cardinal comes, red cardinal.

3.       Lastly, by stepping into the mirror, the contemplative is finally safe and sound, able to do what it is they long to do. I suspect the contemplative longs to do what they are, they long to be what they do. No five year plans, no more sorting out and through what accumulates as distress, and sickens as lies, no more being terrified by potential loss (of security, of self, of sanity). Stepping into the mirror eventuates the wholeness of being/doing. You are what you do. You do what you are. Martin Heidegger said that “To save means to set something free into its own presencing.” His notion of “saving” and being safe are intriguing.

These three longings: to be one; to truly see; to live safe and sound – are these the longings “engaging emptiness,” the longings and the activity of what-is-between? What value in stepping elsewhere, in moving from appreciating other to realizing no-other? If there is something further to do, what is it?

Esther de Waal in her book Living With Contradiction tells when John Howard Griffin, a biographer, was living in Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani, he wrote:

I take Merton’s advice and do nothing, just let all this saturate me, wait for it to tell me what to do. I watch, experience, and listen to the things about me.

You wait, Tom said. You don’t go rushing after what is already there. You wait, give it time, give it time to gradually reveal itself in you…. The solitude unites you with the wind in the trees, the rain, the movement of the birds…you witness the creator and attend to him in all his creation.  

De Waal goes on about Merton’s photography:

His photographs tell me how Merton saw the things, the places, the people in his life. To have taken time to look at them with such loving attention was in itself an act of worship, a homage to that world he so totally enjoyed and loved, that he enjoyed and loved for itself and because it mirrored its creator.

The secret, I realize, is that he lets each person, each object, each place be itself, speak for itself.

Thomas Berry in his book Buddhism tells of the 7th century saint, Santi Deva, saying that in this “…saint of Buddhism one of the most profound trends within the entire tradition came to its own final fruition. It was the desire not only to experience but in some manner to become identical with the entire order of things, to be immersed in the highest experience possible of the total order of things even though this was eventually a world of sunyata, of emptiness. Indeed it was precisely in this final mystery of things, this emptiness that is somehow a fullness, that Santi Deva found his final life experience:

I will cease to live as self, and will take as myself my fellow-creatures. We love our hands and other limbs, as members of the body; then, why not love other living beings, as members of the universe? …Make thyself a spy for the service of others, and whatsoever thou seest in thy body’s work that is good for thy fellows, perform it so that it may be conveyed to them.                               (Barnett, tr., Path of Light)

In Conclusion, this image, this metaphor of stepping into the mirror, is the act of engaging emptiness, the itself of each and all. Religions hold what have been the cultural understandings at differing times of human evolutionary history and consciousness. Religions are the repositories of Faith as captured and conveyed to the present. They represent many reflections in many mirrors.

Correspondingly, as individuals who have also had encounters with the sacred in forms and expressions that perhaps are more varied or, at least, not the same as the particular reflections conveyed by established religions – there are a great variety of reflections mirrored (even in this very room tonight) whenever people gather to tell where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. For each of us to try to recount or perhaps even remember and connect with the multitudinous manifestations of the sacred, clandestine encounters with the divine – would be a wondrous use of our time with each other. It would also be a huge hall of mirrors, perhaps like Indra’s Net, a net of jewels reflecting each and the other, back and forth in a sparkling display of the innumerable manifestations of sacred life. These are lovely tasks, and many future conversations.

Between the two is that which sounds like the words German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about love: “Love is when two solitudes greet, touch, and protect each other.”

Between the two is the Mirror-Itself, which, when stepped into, is a resplendent and engaging emptiness. Not a frightening emptiness, but an engaging emptiness that greets each one in their distinctive solitude, touching the reality that they are, protecting and making safe by allowing each the freedom to be, uncritically, what each is.

Perhaps, stepping into the mirror, we will transparently, in God’s-Name:

1. be the sound of our own True Name, and
2. see What-Is-Itself everywhere we are looking, finally,
3. safely conduct our passage, going “completely beyond” into the heart of Sacred Reality.

It is an empty passage. It is a going without knowing. 

There is a Japanese poem that suggests this not-knowing moving with the name of God. The image of crossing what-is, completely engaging what-is, simply and silently:

Like a boatman
Crossing Yura Strait,
His rudder gone,
I know not the goal
Of this path of love. 

(Sone Yoshitada, late 10th century)


I can only imagine the smile of joy on the boatman’s face in such a passage, on such a path -- looking, listening, waiting!

(wfh, 24Feb2000)



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