slipping into the masterpiece

Dissolver of Sugar, Dissolve Me, If Now is the Time…

You lose your grip, and then you slip, into the Masterpiece
Leonard Cohen

I love these lines from Rumi; their appeal to a force beyond us, to One who knows how to dissolve things; and alongside it the reverence and humility to know, despite the request, that we do not get to dictate when we ourselves dissolve. It’s as good an entry point as any to engage with this rich theme of how dissolution-capable we are – so much less separate and ‘individual’ than we imagine.

The fact of our inter-woven interdependence, the absence of a separate self, is of course a central tenet of Buddhist teaching and many spiritual (and scientific) traditions. Nonetheless, most of us find ourselves conceiving and speaking of ourselves as if we are discreet entities. This is the view endorsed by our culture, yet does not always serve us or capture the truth of our experience. Nonetheless, it dominates - for almost all of us, the way we perceive ourselves both implies and amplifies this sense of separate individuality. And so we tend to be, like Leonard suggests, ambivalent about ‘losing our grip’; we feel we need it, and at one level, we do, even if life within the masterpiece is far more magnificent.

But we are other, and more - and less - than the conventional view of self implies: As Thomas Hubl says, we are not on the planet, we are the planet. To experience ourselves as cellular manifestations of life, life-ing, is to live closer to the dynamism of raw existence at our essence.

I want to explore some of the many channels through which we may deepen our access to such dissolving. But first, a detour: In the past, for me, the Buddhist teaching of no-fixed self was something to ‘realise’ by drilling away at the mind’s instinct to self-identify. Or I would ‘use’ Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry Who am I? to penetrate to a state of impersonal witnessing consciousness. (I am not saying that this is Buddhism or Advaita, more how ‘I’ took up’ those teachings.) In any case, I was never particularly good at either, and when I did achieve some clarity of perception, it was, as Stephen Bachelor would say, a ‘constructed’ insight, reached through technique and effort - and swift to depart.

These days, from more effortless and communal angles, our non-separation seems inclined to impress its obvious truth: we are not separate, or distinct; life is living through us; we reverberate with a life force that bestows its grace on us; we interweave with everything and, on our lucky days, find ourselves enveloped within the masterpiece...

This perception now seems to emerge more often, and as a side-effect of other processes. I want to flesh out some of these a little, with a view to honouring and encouraging each of us to be pierced, melted and altered by our experiences in similar dimensions. The processes I will dwell on here arise in response to experiencing more directly through the body; being altered by aging; noticing our transmissions to each other; and, perhaps most preciously, dwelling in cultures of human un-defendedness, where our opportunity to relate from open presence supports and amplifies a capacity for dissolution.

For each of us, the flavours through which we find ourselves dissolving most gracefully will differ; for many, the invitation will come intensely through meditation, music, immersion in nature, sexual expression, any craft or task that absorbs us. Whatever the source, whatever processes are most potent for us, let’s treasure them. Let’s learn, incrementally, to partake of them wholeheartedly; to honour the invitation they offer us; to notice and thoroughly digest that we are continually experiencing the fluidity of our identity and the reality of our intermingling belonging with all of life...


So, below: four processes explored a little - a Visceral Process, an Aging Process, a Transmission Process and a Warming Process... the last one maybe of most interest to those drawn to spiritual inquiry practices...


A Visceral Process

I’m like a Ruby held up to sunrise
Is it still a flower or a world made of redness?


One element of this process is intensely visceral: from time to time we stumble into the experience that we partake of a cellular cacophony of life moving in us, of which we are hosts and witnesses. In such moments, we receive life from somewhere beyond us, and seem indivisible elements of a larger organism. Though this recognition often arises sensually, it carries more weight than that suggests - it is not merely a physical experience, rather an overwhelming, all-encompassing recognition via the body that we are life in process. 
Sometimes this comes upon us unexpectedly. A few years ago, swimming in the sea, I sensed the energy of the water run through my body directly. Skin seemed to function as a marginal membrane; the sea’s vitality moved unimpeded through a porous cellular body; the sense of union and indivisibility was immanent and vivid. (of course many of us have such experiences often, but even when they are generously given, we do not always process or absorb what they are showing us about who and what we are.)

I also want to give the ocean, and ocean-swimming, the credit it is due - many of us who swim in the sea experience a ‘transfer’ of energy that has a power to surprise us – transcending the merely physical shock of cold water - as if, by entering the ocean we explicitly enter into our non-dual belonging within the living, heaving planet, and are welcomed there.

This ‘ocean’ experience felt both sublime and deeply familiar, recalling me to an intensity I would often experience after days of silent retreat, standing on the grass at Gaia House in Devon, after a few neurotic layers of thought had been sloughed off in silence and meditation. There, I would find myself receive the living field of the body without interference, awestruck by the level of inner activity, the intensity of ‘un-managed’ and ‘un-conceptualised’ life within and around me.


An Aging Process 

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.

From No Going Back, Sabbath Poems,
Wendell Berry

Another element of this ‘dissolution’ of singular identity relates to something universal about good aging – the instinct to be what Erikson called ‘generative’ for our world as a whole. In Berry’s poem, there is a lovely sense of the transition from youth and the invitations it offers us as individuals to a recognition that life’s richness increasingly comes from how and where we give ourselves away and to whom. 

When we relate to ourselves as both part of and in service to life, lots of subtle, good shifts occur: It is as if we humans move from being ‘entities-in-ourselves’ to something closer to ‘shepherds-of-life-energy’.  This is to submit to a looser project and focus than the individual self. We surrender into participation rather than triumph, and in a way our life becomes akin to a field – a physical and energetic arena in which growth, death, work, rest, production occurs. 

If, as Winnicott suggested, there is no baby without a mother, (implying that the process between them was primary and utterly necessary for the baby to stay alive). There is also no adult, really, without a world, without the infinite planet floating around and through us, as us, we as it, and out the other side, into tomorrows without us. 

How we experience this can become a source of deep fulfillment and joy. Self-surrender, more and more often; the wish to offer our energies into life, the hope that our efforts float away from us, impacting and influencing elsewhere in good ways. We become a field we want to fertilise, not for its own sake, but for the sake of what life can grow there…



‘we all knew one thing by being there
the space we stood around had been emptied into us to keep
High cries were felled and a pure change happened…’

Seamus Heaney: Clearances

I want to catch something here about how we take each other in - and are taken in throughout our lives. This is a continual process of impact and influence. This element of transmission is often at its most vivid around others’ deaths and departures. Death is disruptive, in good as well as bad ways, creating apertures of expansion, uncertainty and transformation. 

In proximity to others’ deaths, we often experience something like spiritual transmission: an uncanny intensity in which a recently departed beloved’s essence seems to imbue space (our bodies, consciousness, the planet, the sky…). Temporarily, they seem suddenly everywhere. There may be an enormous sense of the impact of their being, as if, as in Heaney’s poem, there is a brief, precious moment in which we have the opportunity to take them in, to allow their essence imprint us.  

This is an amplified version of what analyst Christopher Bollas refers to when he suggests we truly know others by the ‘trace’ they leave in us. In our after-effect, much about who we are is revealed. And, throughout our days, we carry such traces of each other. In life’s chaotic eros, we exchange, from the beginning and always, not just DNA, but essences, moods, figures of speech, skills, delusions, habits, ways of seeing and being. We are constantly altering each other and being altered. This is the nature of our interpenetrating lives together – a constant interweaving and intermingling of impact, influence, affect. 


A Warming Process…

We are all substantially flawed, wounded, angry, hurt, here on Earth. But this human condition, so painful to us, and in some ways shameful – because we feel we are weak when the reality of ourselves is exposed – is made much more bearable when it is shared, face-to-face, in words that have expressive human eyes behind them…

Alice Walker, Anything We Love Can Be Saved

I want to speak finally of something very close to my heart, and where this dissolution has moved me the most, and it feels, blessed me the most- a ‘warming’ process sourced in cumulative moments of open presence with others. At its most potent, human contact characterised by trust and intimacy has the capacity both to soften our suffering, and to facilitate huge expansions of consciousness. 

What makes some contact so transforming? I can sense a few strands here, which often overlap, but don’t need to: moments in which an emotional wound or fragment of unresolved distress emerges from inside us and registers with an available, attuned other; moments in which we relate from a presence so open, trusting and unknown to ourselves that we relate from an unselfconscious presence where it is safe to be absolutely naked, allowing life express itself spontaneously through us; and finally those moments in which we are open to resonate with a quality of presence in others so free, non-identified and available that we attune to the beauty of where they are speaking from, and absorb something of its quality.

Love says I am everything. Wisdom says I am nothing.

Between the two, my life flows…


For me, a central ‘channel’ for this type of experiencing has been in spiritual practice communities where we consciously create environments highly supportive of exploration, immediacy and presence. These ask us to drop down from our habitual relating with its demands for pacing, coherence and social convention and relate from an open, meditative innocence. We are encouraged to speak from the edge of the unknown, to bring what is fresh and emergent into language. In doing this, our experience alters in quality, slowing down and becoming far more immediate, fresh and intensely experiential. 

The potency of being with others in this way is profound. Our experiences may be ruggedly earthy: speaking deeply and thoroughly of a shameful or vulnerable element of our lives, in such a way that it enters loving human relation, is understood and absorbed and carried more weightlessly afterward. They may also be far more mysterious and esoteric: we find ourselves ‘falling upwards’, slipping unexpectedly into the ‘masterpiece’ where we mirror each other in uncanny states of expansion rich with insight and nourishment. There is joy and wonder here, and also amplification and affirmation of our shared identity as presence. Moments like this have the feel of mystery and grace, a knowing that we partake of something larger than we can map, finding ourselves no longer in the journey to God, but on the journey in God. 

All this offers a deep invitation into both our ‘common humanity’ and our collective identity as a ‘we’ in which we sense ourselves dissolving and reforming, altered and lighter for our contact with each other. 

So what I am calling this ‘warming process’ consists of overlapping gifts: the release of areas of historical tension, loneliness and pain; the articulation of long-held patterns of suffering among human others, and the meeting with each other from presence, as presence, in emptier dimensions than conventional relating allows. The first confers a therapeutic softening and lightening of what we can call the ‘pain body’; the second a growing capacity, as Neelam writes, to knowing ourselves as Presence – and relate with each other from there. 

In writing of all this, I have no wish to give the impression that I am in any way ‘over’ being a troubled individual. But I do wish to honour these precious warming movements and processes of softening that all of us have access to, and to speak up for their capacity to dissolve our sense of seperation. In many of us, twin processes flow alongside each other: emotional attachment to the project of this individual self, and a more open allegiance and belonging to life itself and our intermingling presence here. 

Over to Hafiz:

In a Handful of God

Poetry reveals that there is no empty space.

When your truth forsakes its shyness,
when your fears surrender to your strengths,
you will begin to experience

that all existence
is a teeming sea of infinite life.

In a handful of ocean water
you could not count all the finely tuned

In a handful of the sky and earth,
in a handful of God,

we cannot count
all the ecstactic lovers  
who are dancing there.

True art reveals there is no void
of darkness,

there is no loneliness
in this luminous, brimming

playful world.