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Francis Bennett – The Key to Happiness

Interview by Iain McNay

Iain:  Hello and welcome once more to I'm Iain McNay and my guest today is Francis Bennett. Hi Francis.

Francis:  Hi Iain.

Iain:  And Francis has a book out, I Am That I Am, which is available through Non-Duality Press. And you actually have a new book coming out, probably next year some time, don't you?

Francis:  Yes. It's called Fully Human, Fully Divine, and it'll be coming out probably some time in 2016, probably early 2016.

Iain:  Great, great. So we're going to talk about Francis's life to some extent, and his teaching and his wisdom, his realisations, the integrations of those realisations; so we've got a lot to cover in the next hour or so. And the first line of the first chapter of the book says, I quote: 'This book is about the greatest, most important discovery ever made. It is about the discovery of the key to happiness and fulfilment.' And that's what we all want, Francis, isn't it? The key to happiness and fulfilment.

Francis:  Yeah.

Iain:  So, it's a big build-up to the book, and we're going to, as I said, start with your story about how you got to the place you're in. So you talk about in the book how about when you were young, you were... there was something in you that was already, in its own way, looking for peace and happiness.

Francis:  Yes, sure. I think that very early in my life there was a kind of spiritual thirst, a sense that what I was looking for in life had to somehow be beyond just what was appearing, what was kind of just all around me, ordinary life, that there was something about the realm of spirit that just kind of called me. At a very early age I felt very drawn and interested in spiritual things, and in church and spiritual questions; I think probably at a very young age compared to most people, even, you know, pre- kind of elementary school, I was already looking into questions of God, the presence of God, what was God all about, was there a spiritual world. I mean, I heard stories about angels and saints and spiritual, celestial kind of realms, and I think very early I had a kind of curiosity about all that.

Iain:  And you were quite idealistic as well, weren't you?

Francis:  I think so [laughing], yeah.

Iain:  And at a point in school there was a school teacher, I think, that gave you a recommended book by Thomas Merton?

Francis:  Yes, yes, an English teacher when I was still in, actually, Junior High, I think, was when I first met Mr. Gochenauer, who was my English teacher. And then in High School I was writing a lot of poetry. I'd had a deep kind of religious conversion and I was involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which was a kind of Neo-Pentecostal movement that was sweeping all the mainline churches, including the Catholic church.

Iain:  So what was that; what form did that religious conversion take?

Francis:  What form did it take?

Iain:  Yes, you said you had a...

Francis:  I would say, for me it was a very devotional sense of the presence of Jesus, that I really felt that Jesus became very real to me, and I began feeling that Jesus was present at times around me, in me. And the Catholic Charismatic movement was, like I say, a kind of Neo-Pentecostal movement that stressed the gifts of the spirit and direct kind of experience of God. So people were having visions, speaking in tongues, there was healing, and phenomena like that. And that was what I had been exposed to, and it brought the spiritual life alive for me. It became very real.

Iain:  So you actually saw an image of Jesus or you felt his presence, or both?

Francis:  Yeah, both. I mean, I had sort of visionary experiences sometimes and felt a real deep sense of the presence of God that really started me on my spiritual journey, because initially that presence felt like it would come and then it would go. It felt like it was present and then it wasn't present. And it kind of brought alive in me this desire to somehow always live in the presence of God, and that became sort of my search in life, what I was seeking really. And that's what led me eventually, I think, to the monastery.

Iain:  And did you, did you feel quite on your own with that or were there other kids around you that had this same feeling?

Francis:  No, I was actually one of the leaders of a big, huge youth group. And we had a little organisation we called Covenant Love, and we sponsored Christian concerts and we did all kinds of work in the community and we had worship. And I played guitar and led worship, and was kind of one of the leaders, I would say, of this youth group which was kind of a bunch of teenagers that had had these experiences, and met together in a kind of prayer group and a worship group.

Iain:  And when you read, for the first time, Thomas Merton, what attracted you to his work?

Francis:  I think it was the idea that this was a person who devoted their whole life to living in the presence of God. And I'd somehow been able to articulate for myself that that was my reason for being, that that was my kind of goal in life. I'd had some taste of what I felt was God's presence, but the kind of overwhelming desire I had was to live always in the presence of God, consciously. And it seemed like that's what monks were all about, what monastic life was all about, and what Merton described in his book. And then I ended up reading, like, all of his books, basically.

Iain:  And what, at that time, did the 'presence of God' mean to you, in a practical way?

Francis:  Well, I had felt... I'd had experiences of the presence of God since I was a child, and what I experienced there was just this deep peace, this deep sense of being fully present to what was right here, right now, and a sense of kind of wellbeing, a sense of contentment, that felt really, really wonderful and what I'd been always looking for, but for some reason my sense of it seemed to come and go.

Iain:  You see, when you think of a comparatively young person, a child, talking about 'presence,' that's unusual, isn't it?

Francis:  Well, but that is the way I experienced it, as a presence, as a presence. I probably for many years thought it was a presence outside of me that came and kind of visited me. It wasn't until much later that I realised, Oh, that presence is who I am; it's who I've always been. But when I was a young person I think I felt that it kind of came and went. It would visit me and then it would kind of go away, and I'd be seeking it again and want to get it back. So...

Iain:  Okay, so you read the book, you were attracted, and so you started to visit the monastery where Thomas Merton had been.

Francis:  Yeah, in my senior year of high school.

Iain:  Yes, yeah.

Francis:  It was only four hours away, so I'd drive down there on weekends and I went down there a lot during my senior year of high school, and then I went to Seminary, and I went down there all during my seminary years and I took other seminarians down there, and I got to be pretty known in the monastery. They all got to know me, the vocation director, the guest master...

Iain:  And at that point you had ideas you'd maybe become a monk yourself one day?

Francis:  Not right at first, but eventually I kind of fell in love with the life. It was like, wow, this is the only life that really makes sense to me — to live your whole life somehow dedicated to living in the presence of God — and that seemed to be, to me, the perfect life.

Iain:  But what about the whole thing with parties and rock-and-roll and girls; is that something you put to one side, or... ?

Francis:  Well, I mean, I was a very, very religious young man, so I got very involved in the Charismatic Renewal. All my peer pressure was probably more positive in that sense, so all of my friends were very religious people going to a Charismatic prayer group, so they weren't exactly partying and drinking and doing drugs and having, you know, all kinds of relationships with each other. You know, there were relationships and there were things like that that went on here and there, but I think I was... I had more peer pressure in the opposite direction, to kind of avoid all that stuff, so I was pretty... kind of a goody-goody as a teenager [laughing].

Iain:  Was it an avoidance, or was it that you genuinely weren't pulled to that world?

Francis:  You know, it's just the spiritual world opened up to me at a very early age, and I was just so drawn to the joy and the peace of that, and I felt the other things didn't really tempt me that much. I mean, I just felt like, you know, life is all about finding God, finding the presence of God, living in the presence of God, and my sense was that that's what I was focused on, and so the other things... I can't say I was never tempted to do something to kind of be part of the group, or whatever, in high school, but like I say, most of my group was not doing all that stuff, so it was a different kind of peer pressure really.

Iain:  Yeah. And you were also interested in... there was a Korean Zen master who used to visit the monastery which also was pulling you to practice Zen as well.

Francis:  Well, after I joined the monastery, you know, I was 22 years old, and during my novitiate this Korean Zen master who was the founder of the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island, I believe it is, and his name was Soen Sa Nim and he wrote a book called Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, and he wrote several books. He was kind of a character, and he came and started doing Zen sessions in the monastery [with] those of us who were interested. And because I'd read Thomas Merton, who was interested in Zen, kind of piqued my interest, so I started doing Zen practice with Soen Sa Nim and worked with him for — I don't know — six, probably six or seven years.

Iain:  And did you feel that... you obviously did feel that sat beside the Christian tradition in a way?

Francis:  No, the connection I made was one of the first sessions I did, very intensive Zen practice for a week. And I remember right after the session I was back in the monastery — because we did it across the street at the family guest area — and we did this very intensive Zen meditation practice for a whole week, and right after that I remember walking down the cloister, going outside of church after one of the liturgical hours that we had done, of prayer. And I went outside the church into the cloister walkway, and I was so fully present to just walking down that walkway and feeling that sense of the immediacy of presence here-and-now, and I made the connection, Oh, that's the presence of God! This presence that I've been seeking, it's simply being present here and now. That is the divine, that is the presence of God. And that was the first sort of connection, kind of, that I made to that in a really direct way. And I remember saying to Soen Sa Nim later in the session, and I said, 'Oh, the present moment is the presence of God.' And he says [excitedly], 'Yes, yes, present moment, presence of God, same thing, same thing!' And I remember him being kind of excited that I had had that... that insight.

Iain:  So when we talk about 'presence,' what does that mean to you now? Has it deepened since those times or... so, like, now — do you feel present now?

Francis:  Oh sure, yeah.

Iain:  So how is that now? How can you describe that?

Francis:  Well, I mean, in 2010 I would say there was a big shift. It was during Mass. I was in church, I was a monk, I was at Mass, and I actually had a moment where the Eucharist was put into my hand, and in the Catholic theology there's a sense that the Eucharist, the eucharistic bread holds what they call 'the true presence of Christ.' And they even reserve it in a tabernacle, light a candle by it, and people go and pray before it, and the idea is that the true presence of Christ resides in that eucharistic bread in some very special way. And I looked down at the eucharist in my hand and it seemed like it was sort of suffused in light. And the light seemed to kind of just grow and just envelop everything. That was the sort of experiential... on the phenomenal level that's what I saw, but the realisation that came with that was that this presence, this presence of Christ — it's everywhere. It permeates everything; it permeates me — that I am the presence, the true presence of Christ, and that everything else is as well. And that was... if I had to put the realisation I had at that time into a phrase, that would be it. I often say, 'God is in everything; everything is in God.' That was the insight that kind of arose, but it wasn't like an intellectual thing or like a phrase that arose in my mind, it was an actual direct experience of the sort of... what's the word?... the omnipresence of presence. That presence, or God, Divinity, is absolutely present everywhere all at the same time, and in everything; everything is that, and it's in everything and everything's in that. That was kind of what happened to me.

Iain:  And that realisation is always with you now, is that... ?

Francis:  Yeah, it's never left. I mean, I think I've gotten to the point where it's not as overwhelming. I mean, when it first happened I went through probably a period of seven, eight months when I wasn't much good for much anything [laughing]. I was so kind of overwhelmed by the sense that this presence I'd been seeking my whole life, had always been who I was. You can imagine, I mean, my joy at that, discovering that, that Oh, my gosh, what I've been seeking has been who I've been all along. And what everything is; a kind of manifestation of that, in form; of that formless reality, that presence of God, you could say.

Iain:  So why hadn't you been aware of that before?

Francis:  It's a mystery. I don't know. The thing that strikes you when you see it is, How could I have not seen this?

Iain:  Yes.

Francis:  You know, it's so obvious, How could I have missed this? And yet we do, don't we? [Iain laughs]. We somehow miss it. That's why we call it 'waking up' I think, because suddenly you wake up and realise, Oh my gosh, this has always been the case.

Iain:  And we do all these things to try and wake up.

Francis:  Yeah, sure, and maybe we need to, you know.

Iain:  Because you talk about in the book that you would spend a lot of time just practising being present, and meditating, and then, as you mentioned earlier, the presence would come and it would go, and it would come and it would go.

Francis:  Right.

Iain:  And then what you're saying is, this experience happened in Mass, and suddenly the presence was always there. It never went again.

Francis:  Well, it's almost like it's retroactively true, like, your experience, even your memory of your life, after that completely shifts, where you recognise that the presence that you are has always been present, always will be, always has been. And when you think... when I think back on my childhood, all the experiences I had growing up, as a young monk, you know, as I got more deeply into the monastic life, and so on, I realised, Well, that presence has always been who I was. I just somehow... I missed it. But once you see it, it's like retroactively it goes back and almost changes your history, if that makes sense. I don't know; it's very strange.

Iain:  I can understand that, yeah. It's always been there. In a way you're always aware of it, although you weren't consciously aware of it.

Francis:  Yeah, yeah, like in a way there was always an awareness of it, but somehow it was hidden from me, somehow.

Iain:  So, how did that — when it happened — how did that change the humanness of Francis, insofar as how Francis was in day-to-day life, how he was with himself, with people...?

Francis:  Well, I mean, I think it reflects the kind of trajectory of awakening, what I would call the 'trajectory of awakening' or the 'path of awakening' that often, well, all of us start out... really we're raised with the idea that what we are is a body, a mind, a personal history, a personality. We have this idea that we're confined to that or we're somehow exclusively that. And then, if we're lucky, if we have this grace, if we're on a path and we maybe run into a teacher, a teaching, something that points us in this direction of presence, we come to realise that who we are in the very deepest level, is this transcendence, is this numinous kind of omnipresent presence of wellbeing and peace and contentment, and all the fruits of the spirit that are talked about — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness — that somehow we are essentially this transcendent, absolute, pure consciousness. And so we awaken to that, and we realise, Oh, I'm not merely this human being with a body, a mind, a personality, a personal history, roles, functions, relationships; but we realise there's a deeper aspect to who I am. But then, that being said, we realise who we are on the deepest level, but yet the personal, the human being with a personality and a particular body and gender and history and so on, doesn't just disappear in a puff of smoke, does it? I mean, it's still around. We realise, that's not who I am on the absolute level; that's not who I am. I'm not exclusive to that, but that itself is appearing and even disappearing in this vast consciousness. But that who and what I am includes both those levels of the absolute and the relative. The relative, of course, is not eternal; it's appearing and disappearing constantly, you know, like, who you were at five is maybe, in some ways, a completely different reality than who you are at 55, and yet there is a validity to that relative level. So I think what happens in the trajectory of awakening, we awaken up and out of that merely human sort of identification, and for a while it may even be eclipsed a bit, because it's so overwhelming to realise who I am on this deep, absolute level, that that can almost recede to the background, the human part. But eventually in the trajectory, in the path of awakening, we come back, you know, life calls us back. I mean, we have commitments, we have relationships, maybe we have children, maybe we have a job, we have all these things, and somehow it forces us to acknowledge, Oh, there is this everyday, relative level. But after that kind of awakening to the transcendent, we come back into that with a totally different perspective. So then we navigate the relative world of human, ordinary human life, with the wisdom, with the insight, with the kind of perspective of the absolute. So then, even though the relative level of life still matters, it's relatively important; but it's no longer absolutely important. D'you see the... ?

Iain:  Yes, no absolutely, and I'm interested... you mentioned there was a period of seven or eight months after this realisation which you found quite difficult in one way, but of course you...

Francis:  Not difficult; it was very blissful, but it was... you know, it was a time... I think it's a lot like a honeymoon, you know, when you fall in love and you get married, and you go on a honeymoon. And the honeymoon period is perfectly designed to just sort of marinate in that love, to just soak in that love, to totally be that love, for a period of time. But then life kind of intervenes, doesn't it? You can't stay on the honeymoon forever. You have to come back to your ordinary life...

Iain:  Then there's the practicalities of life...

Francis:  Yeah. There's a marriage after that, you know. It's not all about the wedding and the honeymoon, you know. The real... 'where the rubber hits the road' [laughing], is the marriage.

Iain:  But when this happened to you in Mass, you were residing, you were living in the monastery... so you had that kind of support structure...

Francis:  I was, yeah. I did have duties and things though, so... You know, what happened, though, during that period was, it seemed like when a duty would come up and I'd be called to do something, maybe to preach, or something like that, it would just sort of happen through me. I really didn't do a lot of planning at the time, and things, and I used to do a lot of planning for preaching or teaching something. And during that period it would come up, I'd be asked to do something, or I had a commitment to do something, and it would just kind of flow through me in a way, and it would do itself, kind of, and that was the way I experienced it.

Iain:  Were other monks having similar things happen to them?

Francis:  Um... I'm sure that monks over many centuries, in many different monasteries have had this kind of experience...

Iain:  But I mean when you were there.

Francis:  Not that I knew of, I mean, not, you know...

Iain:  OK, so it was relatively unique what happened to you then...

Francis:  Well, I was a little bit on a search to try to find out what precisely had happened to me. I'd done a lot of Zen practice and Vipassana practice over the years, so I had some notions of awakening or enlightenment and things like that. Um... and I knew something like that... and then with John of the Cross, he has a whole teaching on the various paths of Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive... I had a sense it was kind of in the Unitive level of things, of union with God or the Divine. But it was a little... what's the word?... destabilising at first. I mean I had to kind of... there was a little bit of a learning curve where, OK, how do I live now in this new reality? So there was a period of kind of integration that happened. It's still happening I think.

Iain:  I think one of the things that really touched me in the book was your... you mentioned that you spent several years looking after your father when he was dying of cancer...

Francis:  And my mother, both.

Iain:  Exactly. Your mother as well...

Francis:  At different times.

Iain:  Yes. And you did a training to work with people in hospice who were...

Francis:  Yes.

Iain:  And there was obviously a depth in you to really care for your fellow human beings, especially those close to you. And you also mention that at times you felt the learning you got from people that were terminally ill was as great as the learning you got from teachers, as such.

Francis:  Oh, yeah. I think some of the people that I encountered in my hospice work, working with the dying and their families... and some of them... I mean, in the book I talk about my 'Zen master Mary,' who was a woman that was a patient in hospice who I dealt with, who I really felt was a great teacher for me. I mean, I put her right up there with Bhante Gunaratana who's this, you know, Sri Lankan forest monastery Theravadan monk. I studied with several Zen masters, I studied with great Christian mystics, people who were deep into contemplative prayer and who guided me and formed me as a monk. So I had great... I was just very fortunate to have the most wonderful teachers, but some of those people that I dealt with in the process of dying, really for me became great masters and teachers that I still, you know... I feel there was a real transmission from them that I received, just as much as any of my formal sort of Buddhist or Christian teachers that I had.

Iain:  Yeah. You mentioned that when someone's at the stage of knowing they're going to die, one of two things normally happens: They either pretty much fall apart emotionally or they go into their deepest spiritual side, reserve, whatever you call it. And obviously Mary... and it's worth I think maybe... I'm sure you've talked about it many times before...

Francis:  I do talk about her a lot.

Iain:  ... but I'd like you briefly just to go through that story you have about Mary because she was... I think she'd lost part of her face, is that right? And so she was a mess, really, in terms of the physical side, in a lot of pain...

Francis:  Yes, and bitter.

Iain:  And bitter about it. And she couldn't talk, so she wrote to you [with] a crayon on a board, and... Just talk us through, briefly, that time with Mary, just for two or three minutes.

Francis:  Yeah, I mean, I actually didn't have her as a patient at first. There was another chaplain in the hospice care work — pastoral care work — that had her and didn't get along with her so well; just didn't jive with her, didn't have the right chemistry; which happens in those kind of relationships. And she said, because you're Catholic, you're Catholic religious, this woman's a devout Catholic, maybe you could relate to her. So I went to her and she had started with a little ulcer on her tongue that then kind of metastasised. Her dentist discovered it, asked her to get it tested, and it turned out it was a very virulent form of cancer that metastasised, spread. To make a long story short, by the time I got to her, her whole jaw, everything from here down [pointing] was gone. There was this kind of gaping kind of hole with tubes going in. She wore scarves over it to cover it, but it was very disturbing. I mean, she'd lost kind of half her face and was very bitter and questioning why?, you know. And in the book I talk about that 'Why?' became like her Zen koan.

Iain:  She would write on the board 'why me?' and show it to you.

Francis:  Well, she just would complain, and basically if you distilled it down and kind of put it into one word as a koan — which was the kind of model I used, or image, to talk about it — it would be why? It would be that question, which is a perennial question, isn't it, in life? I mean, especially doing all the pastoral work I've done in my life, that is the human koan. I mean, that's the question that many people have, and she kind of crystallised that for me and came herself, eventually — it's a story; it would take a little time to tell, but you can read it in the book if you want — but she came to a sense of deep surrender, and brought me... and transmitted that surrender to me...

Iain:  But you said something to her, didn't you?

Francis:  I did.

Iain:  Do you remember what you said?

Francis:  Yes, sure. One day I was listening to her... usually I just listened to her and I didn't really usually try to give her... One thing we're taught in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training, is you don't give pat spiritual answers to these, you know, perennial, deep, painful questions people have. And so one day, though, I found myself suddenly saying to her, 'Mary, the only way I know through what you're going through, is surrender.' And she surrendered. And it wasn't like a big verbal teaching on surrender; it was... I saw her surrender. I saw the fruit of it. I saw the joy and the peace that followed, and it brought me to a deeper surrender. And now I have this... There's this touching story in the Gospel that Jesus had a woman — 'a sinful woman,' it says in the Gospel — who came into a place where he was, a Pharisee's house, and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, and then poured an alabaster box of perfume over his feet and then again dried them with her hair. And it says the perfume filled the whole house. And Jesus says in the Gospel, 'wherever the Gospel is preached, this story will be told in memory of her.' And I always thought that was so touching. And I say the same thing with the story of Mary. Whenever I teach surrender — the good news or the Gospel of surrender — I tell the story of Mary, and actually I would say a transmission happens. When I tell that story, people feel just viscerally, they feel so deeply what it means to surrender and they see it in a human life; what it looks like in a human life. And to me that's the deepest teaching of surrender; not so much what we say in words, but how we actually live our lives, you know. And she came to that place, so she was a great teacher.

Iain:  She died two weeks later.

Francis:  She died very soon after that, yeah.

Iain:  So is that something you still do? You spend time with people who are terminally ill, is that something...

Francis:  I do a little bit, yeah, I do some volunteer work like that and I, I do, yeah. And it seems like people like that kind of come into my life. Like, I have students or people I know that ask me to visit an elderly person or a sick person, a terminally ill person. So it seems that's somehow work for me to do.

Iain:  And then I also wanted to talk about... you discovered the book The Spiritual Teaching of Ramana Maharshi at one point, and that made an impact on you as well.

Francis:  Well, yeah, I discovered this little booklet actually, Nan Yar? [Who Am I?], in Tamil, the language that he spoke in, and it was translated into French, and it was at a monastery I was at in France. And I read that little book. I'd heard of Ramana Maharshi many years before, but I read that little book and I made a connection that what he was talking about is self-investigation, or investigating... maybe a simple way to put it would be 'to investigate the sense of presence;' that right now there's a sense of awareness that's here and now that's always with us; and to look at that and investigate that. And what I... the connection I made was, well, that's what contemplative prayer is. What I've been taught as contemplative prayer, as a monk, is precisely that. It's resting in a sense of presence. It's looking at this sense of presence. And so I started doing that a lot a few years before — I'd already done that all my life in contemplative prayer — but I really felt a kind of impetus, or a kind of call, to just put as much time into that as I could, so I did that quite a lot three or so years before the 2010 kind of 'happening.'

Iain:  So when you say 'contemplative prayer,' what does that mean again on a tangible... in a tangible way? You're praying. Are you...

Francis:  Not praying like with petitionary prayer. It's more a prayer of communion, or you could almost call it 'gazing at presence;' just looking at presence kind of lovingly. And that there's a kind of innate sense of devotion to that; that somehow or other, innately, we feel a sense of devotion to presence. And it's not any special esoteric presence; it's just our own simple presence here and now.

Iain:  Yeah, but what... normally when we sit or meditate, people will have a lot of thoughts in their minds, they'll have issues that come up. We made some programmes this morning on where it was very important, in one person particularly, to just look at all the different ideas, programmes — she called it 'voices in her head' — so she could get to understand what they were wanting, where they might have come from, so in her own way she could heal them. So when you say... when you talk about — I think it's 'self-enquiry' Ramana Maharshi normally talks about — so are you... when you say you're 'with presence,' what does that mean in terms of the thought process?

Francis:  Well, I mean, I think it's more a matter of... There's a saying — I quote it so much, but I'll quote it again because I think it's really indicative of this; it just sort of points to what we're talking about really well — and Saint Teresa of Ávila said it. And she said 'you can't keep a bird from landing on your head but you can keep it from building a nest there.' So the idea is that when a thought comes you can't help that. Thoughts come, that's what they do; they come, but they also go.

Iain:  Yes... yes.

Francis:  So you just allow it to come, you allow it to go, and you just become aware of that which is aware of the thought. So rather than focusing on the thought, you're turning your awareness on itself — to really be aware of awareness, you could say. Or to maybe be aware that... rest as awareness. Like, just notice the fact that awareness is always here, and now. Awareness is always present.

Iain:  So you become the background, the one that's always there watching in the background, and you're just observing the whole process that goes on in terms of the mind or reactions...

Francis:  I wouldn't even say observing the process that's going on; I would say, you rest as awareness. So your focus is on the awareness itself, not what's arising or ceasing in the awareness. That's just kind of allowed to come and go, but that's not the focus. So self-enquiry, to me — and contemplative prayer I would say as well — is resting as awareness. Not awareness aware of awareness, because then it's almost implying two awarenesses, but that awareness is itself self-aware; that that's its nature.

Iain:  So there's no attempt to understand or to evaluate or heal, or anything else.

Francis:  No, I wouldn't say that. There might be practices where that's appropriate, but the practice that we're talking about now, I would say, no. It's just to rest as awareness, and let the other things come and go. It's not the time to sort of focus on them.

Iain:  And would you say that was the most effective process you did, or...

Francis:  To me, that seemed to be like a very direct pointing to that, in a way that was very directly experiential. And it seemed to lead up to that sense of... the realisation that that was always the case, seemed to flow from that. But even that, like, you can't really say that because on one level that awareness has always been who you are, so you can't say that anything develops it or even leads to it. It's who you are. But somehow it's almost like if you're looking for something in a supermarket — and I think I use this example in the book and I use it a lot in talks — but if you're looking for, say, you know, Greek olives with no pits I often say, and you ask 'where is it?' and somebody says, 'Oh, it's in Aisle 3.' So you go to Aisle 3 and you're searching Aisle 3, you're looking here, you're looking there, and you go back to the lady and say 'I can't find it,' and she says 'Look, it's right there.' And then you realise, Oh, it's always been there; I just wasn't seeing it somehow. So my sense is that if you look at presence, if you look at awareness, if you just rest as awareness long enough, it somehow... it dawns on you, Oh my God, that's who I am! That's who I've always been. It's not like you develop it, it's not like you build up awareness or become more aware, you know. You're as aware now as you'll always be, you know. But it's just realising, that awareness is who I am, on the very deepest level. Again, that's not to say that who you are has nothing to do with your personality or the relative level, you know. That's a more surface kind of level of who you are, but the deepest sense of who you are, the unchanging essence of who you are, is this awareness that's there the minute you pop out [of] the womb and open your eyes; it's there right before you close your eyes for the last time when you're 90, on your deathbed. You know, it's the same awareness.

Iain:  But can you really know that without a relatively dramatic realisation that you... like what you had in Mass, the one you had in Mass? You can know about it, but can you actually know it without that?

Francis:  You know, I think it's... I think everybody has experiences of this. Something I've really come to recently, that's become very, very clear to me is that every single person has periods in their life... and often when they're doing some activity that they enjoy, that they like, like walking in the park or fishing or flying a kite, or whatever it is, you know, walking their dog. And their mind isn't particularly going anywhere specific; it's not filled with thoughts. They're just present, they're just here and now, and somehow when the mind quiets down and is allowed to just kind of empty out, what arises, or what's there — what's left — is this just natural sense of wellbeing and contentment, and that's it. Like it's not some big special esoteric thing that only people that trek off to Tibet and take esoteric meditation lessons from Lamas learn; it's something that every single human person has accessed at one time or another in their life, but they just don't know how to live there. And that's what... I think that's what essentially spiritual path is all about. It's letting... in meditation it's all about — if you want to boil it down to its essence — it's about quieting the mind in order that we can uncover this innate sense of contentment, of innocence, of presence, of just being here now, without an agenda. And that that's the core of who all of us already are, really, if that makes sense. Very simple; not easy, but simple! [laughing].

Iain:  And... the huge advantage you had — and, you know, you must take the credit for this on a human level because you created the time for it — was you put yourself in the monastic life, and you had the structure and the time and the tools to help find this, but it still took you years to do that.

Francis:  It seemed to. But, I mean, it's not like this just all happened for me in 2010. You know, my first inkling of presence that was really, really clear and lasted a couple of minutes, was walking from one end of the cloister to the other when I was 22 years old. So that's been quite a while ago, you know. And gradually over many years there were little openings, and big openings, and surrenders; and deeper, deeper, deeper, you know, clarities were arising. And so I think it's a matter of having a kind of gradual unfolding of this, and then sometimes there's big dramatic events that big chunks of our kind of mistaken ideas about all this fall away and things become much more clear really quickly. But for most people I think it unfolds in both ways, gradual and sudden and, you know, a combination of those things.

Iain:  I think also — if I can chip in my own experience and thoughts here — it's also important you recognise those small openings as they happen, because through the recognition something can grow, something can mature, and there can be an openness for something else to happen. And I think, as you've hinted, a lot of people have these realisations but they don't [give them] any credence at the time.

Francis:  They don't make the connection.

Iain:  And one line I pulled out — I'm scanning my notes because there's so many things I wanted to ask you, but my eyes have fallen on this one here — 'Realising enlightenment is just the beginning. Once you realise the truth of who you are, we need to investigate these truths in our everyday ordinary lives.' So again, I think that's something that, from my experience, is just very important, talking to different people, that the realisation of enlightenment is the beginning of something; whereas sometimes it's talked about as the end of something.

Francis:  Right, right. Yeah, because we're in this human form, aren't we? We're manifesting in this world as a human being, and if we see that what we are on the deepest level is pure awareness, then, how do I live being pure awareness in the midst of a relationship; how do I live as pure awareness as a father, as a mother, as an employer, as an employee? How does that inform my ordinary everyday life in the world? How does it make a difference in the way I navigate life? If we think all we are is this body and this mind and this personality with its likes and dislikes, we're going to navigate life in such a way that we're going to try to get all our ducks lined up, that we have everything we like, and we avoid everything we don't like. But if who we are on the deepest level is pure awareness, then these kind of things take a very different place in our lives. They don't become all-important any more. You know, what really matters to us is just dwelling in this sense of being, in this sense of being present. And when that becomes effortless, when that becomes really experientially and directly what we experience as who we are on the deepest level, then the way we navigate the other, kind of constantly changing, aspects of life, really takes on a whole different form, you know? We navigate it much more gracefully. We do it causing a lot less harm to ourselves or others, you know. There are various things that sort of naturally flow from this. So Awakening, to me, is the beginning and then there's a trickle-down effect that this consciousness has to permeate every area of our just relative life, of role and function and relationship and all that.

Iain:  And is that process still ongoing in you?

Francis:  Oh, absolutely, yeah. I think it's ongoing in everyone. I mean, I don't think anyone gets to some point where they've arrived and then they're done, and they just close up shop and just sit in a cave and look at the wall, you know. I mean, maybe they do. Maybe some people are called to do that; I don't doubt that.

Iain:  But how does that process register with you? Is it like you see that you respond or react to a situation differently than how you used to?

Francis:  Yeah, sure, that's part of it, and sometimes... You know, there's a story that I sometimes tell that I just happened to see on TV of this woman who won, like, some obscene amount of money in a lottery — like eighty million pounds, let's say, or dollars — and she was out shopping with her daughter one day and she saw this dress in the window, and she thought, Oh that's so beautiful, I want to get that dress. And she went and looked at the price and she thought, Ah, it's too expensive, I can't afford it. And her daughter said, 'Mom, you have eighty million dollars! If you want the dress, buy the dress.' And I think in a lot of ways, awakening doesn't automatically guarantee, let's say, emotional maturity, or perfect maturity in relationships or, you know, anything else. We awaken but then there's still sometimes some conditioning that over many years, and maybe even lifetimes, some people would say, has developed, has kind of covered-over that sense of who we really are. And even after we realise that, it may take some time for that to work itself out; those conditioned kind of ways of responding. But gradually, in light of the realisation that who we are is this pure, absolute awareness or consciousness, gradually we let go more and more of these patterns of grasping and pushing away. And then gradually the human life itself goes through a kind of purification where awakening trickles down and affects... on the level of manifestation, it affects the way we live our everyday lives. And it's a process. It's not something that happens immediately upon awakening, in my opinion or experience. It's a process that unfolds for us.

Iain:  So what is the endgame of the human game? So we... I understand we are the Absolute and that permeates down, and yet as human beings we also have a uniqueness, which is unique to us, and that gets covered up, as you've talked about, through our life experiences and conditioning and everything else. That conditioning can start to be unveiled, can drop away. But where do we end up? Because we don't end up as just a blob of the Absolute, do we? We still end up with some base of our human uniqueness in this lifetime.

Francis:  That's why I like the image of Jesus, although I don't hold it anymore in a kind of traditional theological way, but there's been a lot of talk about Jesus's nature as a 'Hypostatic Union.' They talk about 'fully human, fully divine.' Not even 50 percent human and 50 percent divine, but 100 percent human, 100 percent divine; that there's this awakening that happens in people that are on a spiritual path, to the transcendent level. So they realise on the deepest level, who I am IS pure consciousness, pure awareness, pure presence. That's who I am essentially. That's the unchanging essence of who I am. But there's still this human expression and that human expression, in this context a human being, you know, called Francis, or called Iain, or called Mary or John or Jane or David, or whatever. Somehow or other, mysteriously, this consciousness has chosen, you could say, to manifest in all these myriads of forms and human beings and dogs and cats and trees, and so on. And that each one somehow in form, manifests this transcendent reality, in form. It's amazing; it's a mysterious thing. So it's not something that just gets obliterated or wiped out, but that it actually becomes a vehicle through which this transcendent absolute reality manifests itself in the world. In Hinduism they call it the Lila, the play, of God; that God seems to love to play in all these forms that are all around us, you know, and we are a form ourselves. Not that we are on the absolute level that, you know, this form, it'll come and go. But right now, temporarily, it's a manifestation of the divine. That's why I talk about 'fully human, fully divine.' It's divinity manifesting itself through this human form, and that human form, and that one and that one.

Iain:  How is it for you when you see suffering in the world, somebody really suffering in terms of the physical or the mental or both?

Francis:  Well, I mean, I think it's an expression... compassion is an expression of oneness. If we realise that we're not separate from all these other forms, all these people, these dogs, these animals, the planet; then when one of them suffers, when there's suffering or pain in some form, we feel that as our own suffering, as our own pain. You know, it's like if you cut your finger, I often say, if you cut your finger, what do you do? You wash it out, you put some salve on it, you put a bandage on it, you maybe take medicine to keep it from getting infected. And you don't win a Nobel Prize for that, you know, that's just what you naturally do. And I think compassionate service in the world is just what an awakened person does. Because if you're awakened, you've realised who I am on the deepest level is also who you are. So if you're suffering, if you're in pain, I'm going to take care of that because you're not separate from me. You know, it's a natural outflow of non-duality, you could say. So a non-duality that doesn't express itself in any kind of concrete love or service is, perhaps, I might suggest, maybe a tad bit theoretical or abstract, you know. If you really... the reason you care for your finger when it's harmed is because you feel it — you feel the pain of that — and you see very clearly and experientially that you're not separate from that. And I think that's a real litmus test for true awakening. If you really see your oneness with all things, then you're going to live in a way that's consistent with the vision of oneness with all things. It's going to express itself somehow.

Iain:  Do you feel that individual enlightenment exists?

Francis:  Well, no; on an absolute level, no.

Iain:  Because some people say, 'I'm enlightened.'

Francis:  Yeah. You know, I've almost got to the point where I'm ready to throw out the word 'enlightenment' altogether, just because I think a lot of people have this concept that 'I'm either unenlightened or I'm enlightened;' and I just cross this door and then I'm enlightened, and it's all finished. Or I'm hopelessly unenlightened. And my sense is that there are various degrees; there are infinite kind of gradations of clarity in a human being, in a human life. And some people see things very, very clearly, and some people see things a little bit clearly, and some people see things a little bit more clearly; and there's just infinite gradations on a kind of... If you charted it, you know, you could say there's just infinite places. So that this idea that you're either awake or not awake; I mean, there is a kind of threshold you can pass that I would say... in terms of an abiding awakening, where it's constant, it's abiding, it doesn't seem to come and go anymore. And I can even in my own life see where that threshold was crossed, but there's infinite gradations that lead to that threshold; and then after the threshold there's infinite gradations of further clarity. So I think this either/or idea is just not accurate. So when you say the word 'enlightenment,' it almost denotes an either/or. So that's where I think it kind of breaks down as a pointer a bit. But I probably won't throw it out because, you know, it's worked for centuries for many people. But it limps; it's got its problems I think.

Iain:  We've got about five minutes left and maybe we could just talk about... There's a chapter or a section in your book which you call 'The Prayer of Simple Being,' and you have different parts. Do you want to talk us through that briefly, how that works?

Francis:  Well, the Prayer of Simple Being — I called it that — is more or less based on a lot of what I learned in my formation as a monk about centring prayer. So it's basically using a word to bring you back to a sense of beingness or presence. So I'm kind of using that form of a word, like a prayer word of a meditation word, that somehow when your mind wanders off into reverie or analysis, or thinking about what you're going to have for lunch, or, you know, what's going to happen tomorrow, or what happened yesterday, or whatever; you bring it back to the present of just being here now, with a word, like the word 'being' or the word 'presence' or the word 'God,' or whatever word you want to use. You bring back your attention to the simple presence of presence, here and now.

Iain:  So it's like a mantra in one way?

Francis:  No, I think a mantra is more of a constantly repeating a word to kind of try to almost use that as a kind of tranquilising of your mind.

Iain:  Okay.

Francis:  This is not a constantly repeated word. You only use it when your mind wanders off. So I often compare it to... If you've ever been to the sea shore and you've seen birds, you know, floating around the sea, sometimes they're floating in the atmosphere and they're just kind of coasting on the wind, and then gradually they kind of come down more to earth. And when it seems like they might be almost to the beach, they go [makes flapping sound] and they flap and they come back up again and they just coast. So, like, that would be the use of the word. You only use it when your mind starts to pull you back down into kind of mundane concerns or thoughts or analysis or worry or joy or whatever, about an object, about something in the world, something in your experience. And you just use that word to bring you back up to a sense of being, and then just rest there until you need the word again, as a pointer. So it's not like a constant repetition, like a mantra.

Iain:  OK. OK, well I guess we're almost there in terms of time. You're going to do a short meditation for us after this programme which we'll put on the end of the programme. And I want to thank you, now, very much for coming onto

Francis:  Thank you for having me; I really enjoyed it.

Iain:  I know you changed your ticket to be here; that was great. I'm going to plug your book again, the current one: I Am That I Am. It's a good title, I Am That I Am.

OK, thanks again, and thank you everyone out there for watching and I do hope we see you again soon. Goodbye.

Francis Bennett - Meditation

Hi, this is Francis Bennett on I'd like to share with you a little meditation — a guided meditation — that I've come up with for the practice of surrender. 'Surrender,' I think, is often looked upon as a kind of mood that we are called to work ourselves up into; that right now we're not feeling surrendered or accepting and we want to kind of work ourselves into a mood of surrender or acceptance. But my sense of surrender is that it's much simpler than that; that it's basically about learning to access a place in our heart, a place of awareness, of presence, that's already fully surrendered to what is, here and now. And I think that this meditation on surrender is simply a way of going deep into our hearts and trying to find that place within, that is simply present, that doesn't grab on to what we find pleasant, doesn't push away what we find unpleasant, but is simply present to what is, here and now. And I often talk about the three levels of surrender. The first level of surrender that I speak of is Allowance; allowing what is. And the word 'allowing' almost kind of denotes a sense of tolerating, of just being OK with it — maybe not preferring what is, but kind of tolerating it, just putting up with it almost. A lot of times on court shows you hear a judge say to a lawyer who's following a line of questioning that's maybe a little dubious, or maybe looked upon as not the normal way you would question a witness. And the judge will say, 'I'll allow it.' So, in other words, they're kind of saying, 'I'll tolerate it, I'll permit it, but I'd prefer it was other than it is.' So that's one level of surrender. And, again, it's not a matter of even working ourselves up into an attitude or a mood of allowing. It's recognising that there's a consciousness, there's an awareness, there's a presence, that's already within us, that's already present here-and-now, and that fully allows what comes, and fully allows what goes. So Allowance would be the first level. And it's a lot like when you dive into a pond. If you dive into a pond, there's a shallow level of the pond, there's a kind of more intermediate level where you dive, swim deeper and you find a deeper place, and then if you swim deep enough you can go clear to the bottom and be on the bottom of the pond, which is maybe a very different experience than being up in the shallow area. It's more quiet, it's still, it's a place of peace, it's a place of silence even. So the shallow level of the pond of our heart, where we dive in to find that place of surrender, is Allowance. If we dive a little deeper, we find another place, which I call often 'Embracing what is.' So allowing what is, is the more shallow place of surrender, embracing what is — and the word 'embracing' denotes kind of enveloping it, really accepting it, really kind of going with it, you could say, Embracing. We can even see the difference between allowing somebody to be present, and embracing them. That kind of denotes the deeper depth of embracing what is. And then the deepest level of surrender I talk about is Loving what is. And there's a beautiful passage in a book called the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, who was a fourteenth century hermit woman who lived in Norwich, England. And she had a series of visions that she wrote down in a journal, and spent the rest of her religious hermit life reflecting on these various visions. In one vision, Jesus appears to her holding a little nut in his hand, which looks to her like a hazelnut. And Jesus is looking at this hazelnut very lovingly, and she's puzzled. And she thinks, What is that? Why is he looking at it that way? So she says, 'Lord, I notice this little object in your hand and you seem to be looking at it so lovingly. What is that object and why do you look at it so lovingly?' And Jesus says to Julian, 'this little object that looks to you like a hazelnut, is all that is, and I look at it lovingly, I love it, because it is.' And that's the deepest level of surrender. And again it's not a matter of working ourselves up into it, it's a matter of simply acknowledging that place in our heart that actually loves what is, simply because it is. And that doesn't mean that we're not open to changing what is; it just means there's a ground of acceptance, of embracing, of love. And that any action that we do to try to change something, flows from that ground of loving what is.

So I'd like to do the meditation based on that little teaching of Allowing, Embracing, and Loving what is, as consecutively deeper levels of surrender.

I want you to hold your hands open on your knees, with palms up. One thing I learned in being a monk is that when we do physical motions, they can sometimes access a place in our hearts. Not that we work ourselves up into an emotion, but that the physical movement of surrender, of open palms, of this openness, of allowing, embracing, and loving; that it can sometimes put us in contact with that place deep in our hearts that already is there, that already is in that consciousness.

So just close your eyes and put the palms up, on your knees, and think of a person, a situation, or an experience that you find difficult to accept, that you find some resistance to. And picture that object, that person, that situation; picture it in your mind's eye; picture it in your heart, and just feel the energy of opening your palms to that. Feel the energy of openness, of unconditional openness that's already in your heart, that allows that. And speak to that when you feel ready.
Let the phrase come to your lips, 'I allow this.' And then rest in that phrase while you're picturing this person, this object, this situation. I allow this.
I allow this.
Between the phrases of saying, 'I allow this,' just silently picture this in your mind and feel the energy of allowance in your heart. Feel that place in your heart that allows this person, this object, this situation to exist in your life.
I allow this.
And now dive a little deeper into your heart of surrender, go deeper into the heart, and find a deeper openness yet toward this person, this situation, this experience. And as you repeat this next phrase, try to allow it to access that sense in your heart that embraces what is, as you say the phrase, 'I embrace this.'
I embrace this.
And again, in between saying these phrases or hearing me say these phrases, rest in that consciousness of embracing what is: this person, this situation, this experience that you find some resistance to on the level of personality. You're diving deeper into your heart and finding that place that embraces this.
I embrace this.
As you say to this person, this situation, this experience, 'I embrace this.'
Just rest in that sense of embracing that dwells within you, that is this sense of presence; it's fully and unconditionally open and embracing of whatever is. I embrace this.
And now, dive a little deeper still, dive down to the depths of surrender, dive down into the depths of the surrendered heart, and see if you can find the place that loves what is, simply because it is. In all these phrases you don't have to feel the emotion of it. Simply say the phrase and see what it evokes in your heart. See if it gives you access to that place in your heart that loves what is simply because it is. Again, not in a passive, resigned way — it doesn't mean you don't do anything about pain or suffering you see in the world — but whatever you do flows from this ground of surrender, of deep surrender.
And repeat the phrase, 'I love this,' to that person, that situation, that experience that you're holding in your mind's eye. I love this.
See if this bodily position of surrender and repeating silently or softly the phrase, 'I love this,' accesses that deep place of surrender that already dwells in your heart. I love this.
I love this.
I love this.

I would suggest maybe taking this practice into your life and the next time you're faced with a person, a situation, an experience that you're feeling a lot of resistance to on the level of personality, that you try to go deeply within your heart and find those places of allowing, of embracing, of loving what is. And see if that changes the way you navigate your life. It's just a help. It's just a pointer that points you back to your heart, and hopefully will help you access the heart so you can go through life... with heart, with an open heart. And just see what that does to your life, see how it can transform your own experience of life, and even the experience of those around you.

So I thank you for your attentiveness and I wish you well on your journey. Thank you.


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