The memory of Thomas Keating is much on my heart this day as we say our final farewell to his physical presence in this material realm of space and time. I am struck by the rich and fruitful collaboration that took place between Keating and his student Cynthia Bourgeault.

I cannot imagine the number of times in her teaching that Cynthia referred to Thomas Keating with respect and admiration, but there were many. Certainly, in the four years that she held classes in Victoria based on Kabir Helminski’s Living Presence, she referred to Keating numerous times. Here and in days to follow are some of Cynthia’s references to Thomas Keating during those years Cynthia reflected so richly on Keating’s work:

4 Oct 1999 –13 Nov 2003 Victoria, BC –
from Transcript of Audio Recording of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Commentaries on:
Living Presence by Kabir Edmund Helminski

What’s hardest on all the spiritual work is that we all discover we all want these clean breaks.  We all want on June 10th to have graduated from Grade 3 and be in Grade 4.  When you go onto the spiritual journey it just doesn’t work that way.  Thomas Keating has got some of the best models of spirals which spiral up and spiral down but the basic idea is you keep spiraling around to the core crap over and over and over and over again.  This is very depressing in the spiritual life because you think you have worked that all through.  Then you discover there it is again!  Thomas says – he gives us some hope – he says each time you work it through you are actually coming at it from a different place, from a more liberated place, bringing more to bear in working through it.

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Remember when Thomas Keating used that image about Centering Prayer, about the boats floating down the river and what we want to do is get into the hold, or onto each boat and examine the hold, examine the contents?  That would be sensitive energy.  You would go in and you would get bound up in each thought you think.  In consciousness you take the stage more like what he described of that little diver down there at the bottom of the river and see the boats float by.  You can see what’s in the hold, you can see the feel of the consciousness of the river, and you can hold onto some feeling of “I am” through the thing.

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Thomas Keating has a wonderful image of “the tapes” that we play, the commentaries as he’s called them, these little things we “pre-record” that tell us who we are, what we need, how we respond, how the world treats us, how it’s always treated us, how it’s going to continue to treat us: we’ve all got those. And as soon as we hit an outside situation that even vaguely, remotely looks like it’s going to begin to push a button, on go the tapes that tell us completely what the situation is, what it holds for us, what it’s going to be, and we get identified with it.  It’s like we go under a headset.  And it absorbs tremendous energy.  It scatters our being.  It dissipates us.  We’re lost. When you’re playing a tape, you are not present.  That’s another 100% for certain.  So if you can hear yourself playing tapes, you will know that’s another very accurate position fix.  Whenever you hear yourself saying over and over again something you’ve said insistently inside, to measure a reaction, you’re not present!  You can’t be!  You’re under the headset.  And a lot of the work in this Work is realizing that presence is an energy, presence is in essence a spiritual substance, a very, very precious, subtle substance and that we squander it.

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For most of us, we experience attention through sensitive energy, which means that we can pay attention but we lose attention in… it goes to the object of our attention, we’re completely caught up in the object of our attention.  So if [someone] is banging away on the piano and she’s completely lost in and in rhapsody with this piece she is playing and she’s totally happy and she’s totally caught up into it so that dinnertime comes and goes and she hasn’t even noticed, certainly there’s a very, very strong intensity of attention there, but the chances are that it’s bound attention.  Because it’s being caught and pulled and sustained by the object itself; she’s lost in her piano playing.  Conscious attention as we talked about it, or free attention, or voluntary attention means that you’re able to simultaneously to hold the object of attention – the thing that’s pulling you and drawing you – and the subject of attention which is your own awareness of Presence.  So you don’t lose yourself in the field.  To use Thomas Keating’s metaphor, you are aware of both the ships passing on the river and the river itself.  And that kind of attention is known in Work circles and in general consciousness circles as free attention because it’s not completely caught and bound like in a chemical reaction by its object.  It can be aware.  The watcher is in it at your disposal.  And it’s really the key.

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I think, the best analogy is Thomas Keating’s lovely one of the boats on the river.  It’s a wonderful schematic.  And no matter what path of meditation you practice, I think his basic picture here holds true.  What he imagines is the river of consciousness – remember this? – and it’s flowing on downstream.  And down this river of consciousness float boats.  The boats being the thoughts that present themselves to us, that pop up in our unconscious out of nowhere….There are various boats, but what they all have in common is that in our normal life as soon as a thought pops up into our consciousness we find ourselves obligated to think it.  There it comes and all of a sudden we get bound up with it.  The next thing you know, we’re thinking it and responding to it and reacting to it as if we have no choice at all.  Thomas says that what we do is whenever a boat floats down the stream normally we feel impelled to climb into its hold and examine the contents. And what meditation really teaches us is to be a little diver sitting down on a rock down at the bottom of the river of consciousness and just letting the boats float by.  So the thoughts can come and go, but we realize that just because a thought pops into our consciousness, we are not obligated to think it, react to it, respond to it, get caught in it, float downstream on it.