An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation

An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation

New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 232 pp., paper, $18.95.

There is a wonderful dialogue quoted in the preface to this book. It is from the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. When the Boy in the story starts loving any of his stuffed animals, they start to become real. The Rabbit, confused, asks the wise Skin Horse, “What is Real?” The Skin Horse tells him, “When a child REALLY loves you, then you become Real. . . . Sometimes pain is involved but then when you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt. . . . and it takes a long time.” Each of us can find a different meaning in this story, but the underlying truth is that love makes us real. Being real requires patience and endurance of hardship and struggles, but it can also smooth the jagged edges of life.

How do we find love that makes us real or, even more, makes those around us real? It is the faculty of loving that we reach through contemplation, which means that we stop clinging to thoughts (even though they may cling to us). Martin Laird’s book leads us through a journey within with a deep understanding of contemplative practice. It is our own unique conversation with the Skin Horse. Our predicaments are many—principally an inability to be aware of our thoughts. Such an awareness, if we develop it, allows us to choose what we give our attention to. The practice of contemplation is not only beneficial for us as individuals but also for the whole world. The fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing says that contemplation “is the work of the soul that pleases God most.”

Laird’s book is a companion volume to two preceding it: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. The first addressed a need in the literature on contemplation for the “intermediates”—those who had a well-established practice. The second one focused more on the challenges in our practice and the nature of awareness: it is not what we are aware of but the process of being aware that needs our attention.

Laird’s current volume explores the themes from previous volumes from a different angle. It is composed of three parts. Part 1 goes into the illusion of being separate from God. We allow the voice of contemplation in our life so we understand the intimate presence of God. God does not know how to be absent. Why do we not see it? It is simply that our “vision is heavily lumbered” and our minds are cluttered.

Part 2 uses this metaphor of cluttering and decluttering as a pathway into the practice of contemplation. Laird stresses that the mind is not something static; it is impermanent. Laird highlights three aspects of mind: the reactivereceptive, and luminous, and he goes into each one with the same four questions: What is practice like? What is ego like? What contemplative skills are developing? What are special challenges?

We all know what practice is like for the reactive mind. It is constantly distracted by events. Our attention is stolen by thoughts and feelings. The ego comes in only one size: extra-large. It desperately tries to cling to what it wants and discards what it does not. The challenge is to bring awareness into the picture.

It is awareness that turns the reactive mind into the receptive mind. The receptive mind is less cluttered. Like the sun breaking through clouds, it has always been there. Sitting in silence is more natural to the receptive mind, and practice becomes a way of life for it.

Is the luminous mind any different from the reactive and receptive mind? Not really. It is indeed the underlying foundation of clarity, devoid of all clutter. The “I” present in the reactive and receptive phases has disappeared. It is radiant, present, pure and simple. It is true contemplative living.

Part 3 of Laird’s book deals with the immensely important topic of depression. Laird uses the term to include anxiety, dark thoughts, and other ailments. He says that the key to coping with depression is understanding that one may never get relief from it; for some, it is there to stay. What do contemplatives do then? They accept depression as a companion: this “frequent pattern of inner weather” needs to be allowed to be present. Through contemplation, we discover an inner stillness that remains even in the presence of depression. Understanding this darkness brings about light! It is a wonderful paradox of contemplative life.

Laird’s book introduces us to many voices of saints and authors and resources that are too many to mention. Some are old friends, some we meet for the first time. It is time worth spending.

Is Laird telling us something new? Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). I remember my mother teaching me the same thing through a Marathi proverb. The underlying truth is profound and deep, no matter the language or religion or philosophy. A new expression always helps!

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.