BOOK REVIEW: NOT I NOT OTHER THAN I
Not I, Not Other than I is an inspiring story of spiritual awakening. For me, the book has a skilful balance of biography and wisdom in which each throws light on the other. Highly recommended to people involved or interested in contemplative spiritualities.
Russel Williams left school aged 11. Both of his parents were dead and he was too old for Barnado’s. So he was licensed to work for a living, though in 1932 and the years that followed it was hard to make ends meet. He describes himself in his teenage years as existing but not living. He was angry and aggressive, with no empathy, a quick temper, and prone to getting into fights. What frustrated him most was a sense of his own ignorance.
In 1939 war broke out and Williams joined the British army. He recalls that being a soldier “saved me from a bad end, kept me out of trouble – and most importantly it took away the worry of keeping myself alive. I had regular food and shelter for the first time since my parents died. It was easy, compared me to the life I had before. It also taught me self-discipline to control my emotions”.
After the war he went “walking, walking …” until he making contact with another man, who was starting up a small circus. Williams accepted the job of looking after the horses, and he began to feel a strong connection with them. He wanted to understand them better. “I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end”. This process became “more and more concentrated”. He was “not thinking any more”. His mind had “gone quiet”. He was experiencing states of “spontaneity” and “living in the moment”. He began to “look through the horses’ eyes”, as the boundaries fell away, and he became notable for his calming and healing presence when working with them.
Still in his 20’s, Williams began to discern a path in life. Later he framed his life with the horses – 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 years – as a naturally occurring education in mindfulness meditation: his life a continual service, “with no thought of myself”. He still experienced frustration and disappointment, because he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about this who seemed willing to treat him seriously. But eventually he ran into a small number of kindred spirits, people with whom he could enter into close rapport, and this led to his joining the Manchester Buddhist Society in 1957.
Although the Society made a connection with Thai Buddhism in 1954 (one of their members trained as a monk) Williams himself has kept a distance from formal Buddhism. He has been President of the Society for over 40 years and he still doesn’t call himself a Buddhist. His life and work has included esoteric Christian influences and a resonance with Ramana Maharshi. One of his sayings is that whereas “Buddhism is a belief system … the way of the Buddha is a recognition system”. Acknowledging that Buddha didn’t go beyond dealing with suffering, never mentioning spiritual worlds as such or communicating with other entities, he added “but we do”. Williams’ way of the Buddha is also a way of the free spirit.
Russel Williams is now 93. He is still going strong. My contemplative Druid companion Rosa Davis mentioned this book at our last group meeting. Williams says that his life experience and practice have led him to a “natural state” of oneness with everything, and with the universe itself. “We are part of the unmanifest. We are part of the pure consciousness which has given rise to the whole universe. That consciousness is our true nature, and, when we rest within it, we feel a powerful sense of ease and contentment”. He believes that this is the only meaningful way of understanding the term ‘God’, and what Jesus of Nazareth meant when declaring “I and the Father are one”. This kind of experience, “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being” is the inheritance of us all, and potentially available to us all. It is based on sense-feeling, and on filling the emptiness with loving-kindness.
Williams doesn’t support long meditation practices, though he does believe in frequent ones. He saying “once you get the process going” 10 or 15 minutes should suffice, and recommends doing it 7 times a day. For him, the way in to a full meditative state is through the realm of subtle feeling, and he invites us in with him about a third of the way through the book:
“Feel down here, a little bit above the navel you’ll find the right place. Centre yourself there, in feeling. Observe your breathing, in the sense of the expansion and contraction of the outer part of the body, as if it were a balloon …” From here we are guided to notice the calming and peaceful effects of this “gentle movement, this comfortable gentle movement … absence of agitation, peacefulness … a kind of heartfelt warmth of feeling … it feels homely, as though you belong there … And as though it were a light”. We then move outwards from the “balloon” to include the whole physical body and then go beyond it. “It reaches out in all directions … and begins to feel at home with all its surroundings, whether it be animate or inanimate … of the same nature” …. And so on into silence for a few minutes. At the end of the meditation the practitioner is asked to draw back into the “very centre”, making sure it is “still peaceful and warm” before returning to normal consciousness.
What I learned from this was the flavour of ‘sense-feeling’, a specifically located warmth, a sense of quiet movement, qualities of gentleness and peace. Nurturing is another favourite Williams word. These qualities fill the body-mind and move beyond it, filling emptiness, engendering loving-kindness. In a group meditation, they can create a deep rapport and subtle meeting place between participants. The aim is to develop “such gentle perception that you could compare it to a finger, soft and warm, touching a snow flake, but so delicate that the flake doesn’t melt”. From there, we begin to see into the nature of things, becoming aware of a different reality, expanding into it until we become “boundless”. This is achieved not by any great effort, but by simply letting go.
‘Sense-feeling’ has already helped me in my own practice. It enriches my experience of ‘presence’ (a key word for me), placing it more clearly beyond witnessing awareness as normally understood. The meditative experience becomes participatory and nurturing in a more complete way, yet one that also seems easy, obvious, almost remembered rather than newly learned. I’m grateful for the recommendation and glad to be passing it on.
Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books