“Come with me to the Palace of Nowhere, where all the many things are one”
A friend recently gave me a copy of the Path to the Palace of Nowhere by James Finley, a student of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author, and student of Zen.
The writing of Thomas Merton asks us the fundamental question; ‘Who am I ultimately before God?’ or as I understand it ‘Who am I ultimately before all existence?’ My own thoughts are that whatever way we look at this, our own actions before God/ existence could be considered more important than the actions of others, for in the face of all existence or love within the I/We-ness of all-being the only actions we can control are our own…Desiring others to change their behaviour towards us, others or situations, however unjust their behaviour may have been is just a want of our ego or ‘false self’ – That is if Mertons writing is to be taken into the context of everyday living as opposed to monastic life.
To reach any kind of spiritual understanding it appears that we first need to overcome the sense of “is that all there is?” and to become aware of and reduce the power of the false and illusionary self or ego. This is nessasary in order that the true self can awaken enough to understand and experience a glimpse at enlightenment, and to know that such a glance is merely a ‘given’ moment of illumination arising from the fabric of everyday living. Nothing fancy here, just one eternal moment from which the entire universe unfolds. This realisation was at the heart of Thomas Mertons understanding, and the purpose of his student James Finley’s own spiritual quest, and possibly the purpose of all spiritual seekers everywhere.
The realisation of “Is that all there is?” and recognising the shadow of The ego, or ‘False self’ as Merton calls it has been central to my own path, The most important person in my life has been, and probably still is this illusionary shadow, the small one who insists on the entire universe being ordered to satisfy its own egocentricity. The ‘false self’ overshadows the ‘real self’ in its quest power, pleasure and glory, and in its desire to be ‘someone’ or ‘something.’ In my own life the false self is the one who has allowed family rifts to continue on a point of principle, or the one who has expected people who have wronged me to say ‘sorry’, in order that I can forgive them, even when I know they lack the capacity for what my false self considers appropriate remorse. The false self is the one who demands love and needs to be right. I have come to realize that this want, want want of the screaming child within, with its illusion of power manifests nothing but unrealized ideals, misery, anxiety and anger at the absolute unfairness of it all…not that this makes the false self go away, perhaps it slowly reduces its basis of power.
In his work, Finley describes life with Thomas Merton, and how he pointed the way to an enlightened state of awareness open to us all. Merton, as a young man, was spiritually awakened to the presence of God within life itself, to the mystery that there is nothing missing anywhere. What makes the work so meaningful is the knowledge of Mertons own struggle as a human being, where he, at times has struggled with his own faith, fallen in love, and as a result struggled to maintain his vows, the kind of doubt that reduces even the most enlightened one to serve the shadow self in the of darkest times
The phrase “Come with me to the Palace of Nowhere, where all the many things are one,”comes from the Taoist sage and poet Chaung Tzu, who used the phrase “Palace of nowhere” as a metaphor for contemplative fulfillment. That is, the palace of nowhere is a state of awareness in which we realize directly that ultimately nothing is real but love. Or that ultimately nothing is real but God. “The palace of nowhere” also alludes to a great paradox. The nowhere is the infinite ground of everywhere.
These moments of awakening arise spontaneously out of the substance of everyday life itself. That is, they come in while lying awake at night when it starts to rain, or walking along the beach in the midst of a deep sorrow. Our heart is quickened and we know that this moment is true. If we sit with these moments, we see that they disclose to us a depth that fulfills our hearts. Once we’ve tasted of that fulfillment, we begin to see the essentially claustrophobic nature of egocentric pursuits. We begin to ask ourselves: “Why do I spend so much of my life trapped like this? Why do I spend so much time unaware of that which alone can fulfill my heart?” This aching or longing is our teacher. It helps us to realize that we are called to something infinitely beyond what any egocentric pursuit can offer us. And then in obedience to that teacher we set out on this path. Paradoxically, the way to our deliverance lies in the willingness to open our hearts to this ache. That is what transforms us. But the contracted state of egocentricity invests itself in the avoidance of that ache, which of course does nothing but perpetuate the discontent. This false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves – the ones we were born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.”
Further Reading: James Finley left home at the age of 18 for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived as a contemplative. Finley stayed at the monastery for six years, living the traditional Trappist life of prayer, silence, and solitude.
Merton was first exposed to and became interested in Eastern religions when he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means in 1937, the year before his conversion to Catholicism.Throughout his life, he studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism in addition to his academic and monastic studies.
Merton was not interested in what these traditions had to offer as doctrines and institutions, but was deeply interested in what each said of the depth of human experience.
In April 1966, Merton underwent a surgical procedure to treat debilitating back pain. While recuperating in a Louisville hospital, he fell in love with a student nurse assigned to his care. He wrote poems to her and reflected on the relationship in “A Midsummer Diary for M.” Merton struggled to maintain his vows while being deeply in love with the woman he referred to in his personal diary as “M”. He never consummated the relationship. After ending the relationship, he recommitted himself to his vows.