John Butler – Discovering Stillness Part Two
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello, this is Conscious TV. I am Iain McNay. Welcome back to Part Two of the John Butler story. John has four books out - "Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment", "Mystic Approaches" and two smaller volumes of poetry. We have been going through his story and realisations … the ups and downs of his life in Part One, so do seek that out if you possibly can. Most of what we are talking about now is based on this book here [Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment]. So, at the age of fifty-three, you, in Nottingham, decided to study Russian.
Iain: Because you had a Russian mother...
Iain: ...and you already talked in Part One about this enormity of a Russian heart.
John: Yes, well, what a thing to do. Why should I, a farmer, lover of open spaces, want to study Russian? Well, I was that desperate, I'd been homeless, jobless, loveless and alone for a long time and I was really desperate for direction and something worth while to do. Not just aimless wandering. So, I was only too grateful when I was given this opportunity. Yes, Mum was Russian, from Siberia, born in 1904. When the Revolution broke out in 1917, the family was dispersed and she found herself a refugee, sent to England in her late teens. Speaking no English, she had a difficult life until she met and married Dad. Anyway, I'd always felt that I wasn't really English – but some sort of a misfit. I suppose that's why I was more at home with nature than with other people. School tried to make me into an Englishman and it didn't really work. I didn't fit that mode, I didn't think that way. And I didn't know why. I suppose it gave me a sense of guilt and failure throughout life as I just felt I was different, I didn't belong. And when I began to study Russian, in very little ways at first, something seemed to come together in me. Even the language books, particularly those with illustrations, seemed to go just straight to my heart. Something seemed to be happening ...
Mum never taught us Russian as children. She was so traumatised by her own dreadful experiences as a young woman that she only wanted to protect us from it, she didn't want us to carry the weight of all those terrible events that happened in Russia, so she shielded us. But especially as I grew older I wanted to know more and more, and when I went to university I really was hungry to discover all I could about where I came from.
Iain: And you actually ended up teaching in Russian schools.
John: I went to Russia … and that is another long story. Yes, I went there at the end of Perestroika, in Spring 1991. The Iron Curtain had just come down and I found myself in a small town in provincial Russia. Being the only Englishman there, the first most of them had ever met, I soon became a novelty. The children wanted to learn English and so naturally I found myself drawn into schools and teaching. I had never taught before. I had no experience of children but it wasn't difficult. I loved it. All I had to do basically was speak English.
Iain: And what was happening with your meditation, at this point? Didn’t it become more like prayer?
John: Yes, well, but not for a while. Not for several years.
Iain: Did Russian - your learning Russian, influence you in terms of your meditation?
John: Well, that also came later but, to begin with, you may remember, I had gone through a long period of depression - a really awful period of depression until, thank God, being busy and having something else to think about at University, pulled me out of it. When I went to Russia, again it was very difficult at first, for my ability to speak the language was abysmal. I was alone, with no reliable connections, nowhere to live. But eventually I found my feet and really loved it. I couldn't help loving it even when lost and lonely because … I remember very soon after I went there, standing at a bus queue on a cold miserable day with a wretched cold myself, and people all huddled up in their overcoats and I felt such happiness. Again, I am going to cry, because I knew I was among my own people and these were people who thought and felt as I did.
John: And I was no longer alone. I was among my own people. I can't tell you what that meant to me. It was a journey of such great discovery for me. Love is not really a big enough word to describe it.
Iain: Yes, I'm just thinking of how this can help people. So, you found your own people and it was to do, actually, partly with your, I guess genetics, your history with your mother. And that was a heart-full connection which you had never really found in England.
John: No. No, but again that was at the human level. So, it was important at that level, at the level of my personality but that’s of minor consequence compared to the spiritual work. I suppose at that time, my spiritual work had rather gone into the background. I was absorbed in the discovery of Russia, but after several years in Russia it began to re-emerge. When I first went into Russian churches, and discovered Russian Orthodoxy, it seemed very strange to me and alien - quite different from the Church of England - at least in the way it's presented. And I had to learn another language, not even ordinary Russian but what’s called Old Church Slavonic, to read the prayers and that. But I did it, I plodded on and figured it out and learned to read these simple children's books at first. It was like rediscovering Christianity for the first time, really, rediscovering it …in a much deeper and more meaningful way.
Iain: Okay, so I understand now. So, it was almost like a letting go of everywhere you'd got to, even with your spiritual experiences and understanding and … restarting.
John: No, it wasn't a restarting … but extending. An extending and ... [pauses] ... an extending of the background, rather than the actual experience of Spirit. The spiritual work was not noticeably increased or improved but the ... sorry ... let me tell you, quite soon after ... I told you that when I started to meditate, the Church greeted it with suspicion and to some extent still does. I think for most Church people, meditation is something they don't understand … they feel a bit uncomfortable with it really. Even here in Bakewell Church, I feel that it's something they can’t quite understand. I sit there with eyes closed and feel them thinking ‘What on earth is he doing? Why doesn't he do something?’ But when I went to Russia and started studying Orthodoxy, I understood that what's called the Jesus Prayer, which is the Orthodox version of meditation, is very alive and part of the Orthodox tradition. Through Communism, for three generations, Christianity was virtually abolished in Russia – they had three generations of persecution. 99% of Russian churches were closed, desecrated or destroyed. Millions of Christians were martyred for their faith. Then I saw with my own eyes the miraculous resurrection of faith in Russia and I was right there at the beginning of it, and my own discovery of this tradition of inner prayer meant so much to me because I was no longer an alien from the faith that I'd been brought up in. It brought Christianity and meditation together.
Iain: So, what is the Jesus Prayer?
John: Well, the Jesus Prayer uses - some people will be cross with me for saying this - but basically the Jesus Prayer uses the name of Jesus as a mantra.
Iain: Yes, okay.
John: Now, do you want me to explain what a mantra is?
Iain: I know what a mantra is, explain very briefly what it is.
John: Very briefly, I've explained how we live in this sort of bubble of thought. The human condition is basically 99% of the time, lost in thought. You have your bubble of thought and I have my bubble of thought and so we think we are separate. And, to find freedom, or Spirit, we need to discover what is beyond thought. It's a bit like when, on a cloudy day we live under a blanket of cloud, and then what happens? You get in an aeroplane and go up through the cloud, and beyond the cloud you discover the beautiful open sky. Now, that's what meditation is. In meditation, a mantra is like an aeroplane. You get in, you sound a mantra, and this sound in your mind acts like a mental handrail which leads you through the world of thought, of subjective thought up to the open sky.
John: Now, there are all sorts of mantras and methods of meditation, people have their choices but if you are brought up in the faith, if you have a love of Jesus, if you have any sort of connection with Jesus, it's a very comforting thing to use the name of Jesus. Of course, we all grow in faith, starting from what may be really very childish concepts of what it is all about, But we go on growing all our life, we never stop growing in faith and in understanding what it's all about, and what Jesus actually is. My understanding of Jesus has expanded enormously from what I understood when I was being taught in scripture lessons at school. So, anyway, at this time, for me, meditation and Christianity came together.
Iain: You see again, picking out some quotes from your book, which I think you did touch on but I'd like to maybe explore more. You say "Beyond our active mind lies another faculty; quiet and reflective and beyond that again, an indefinable heart or soul. This is the innermost essence of what we really are."
John: That's right.
Iain: "A quiet mind may have aspects of eternity but for fuller access to spirit it’s necessary to discover and work with the heart."
John: That's right.
Iain: I suspect with the Jesus Prayer, you are talking about working with the heart?
John: The Jesus Prayer, like any other deeply effective meditation can also be described as prayer of the heart.
John: Yes, that's another word for it and in Russia certainly, the phrase Prayer of the Heart is often used.
Iain: Yes, but you almost talk about three levels here, there's the active mind, beyond the active mind is the quiet and reflective...
John: ...the reflective mind yes.
Iain: Which could perhaps be called the observer in some traditions. Maybe not?
Iain: ...anyway, just to stick with what you are talking about here; and then beyond that again, there's the indefinable heart or soul. So, it seems to me that there's almost three levels of us before we get to the Influencer.
John: Well, there are many levels of consciousness, aren't there? There's unconsciousness, there's consciousness of the body, of appetites, of desires, there are states of dreaming, states of awaking, there's day-dreaming. Most of us go through the day half asleep. We are not awake at all. Occasionally, something, some noise disturbs you and you wake up and think‚ Good God, what was that? And you wake up to a higher level of consciousness. Where was I before? Oh, I was half asleep. Now, we go up and down like a yoyo throughout our day, between these different levels of consciousness all the time, and spiritual development is really moving to higher levels of consciousness. Just like an aeoplane, it goes up, it starts on the ground and it goes up through thick clouds, then more wispy clouds to where there are no clouds at all. It goes up through clouds of the mind. You can describe thoughts as clouds of the mind because they are limited, they all have a boundary and you can describe them and the practice of meditation takes you through to the Indescribable. To the Unlimited. Which is Spirit. From Spirit we may ask ... what is God? God is Spirit.
John: And it is all right here. All these states of consciousness are here ... here in you and I, sitting in bodies, talking and it's all within this [raises arms up in an arc] context here and now.
Iain: Okay, I'm just trying to look at my notes to try and use you while I have got you here and other things that I wrote down from your book ... there's so much in it. "In order to purify one's self, associated ideas of me need to be let go..."
Iain: "...left behind," and you call that repentance.
John: Yes, well, whether it is political correctness or what, I don't know but for some reason the word sin has been largely missed out of common, modern life, but I'd like to give you a very simple understanding of sin. Now look, if I turn like that [faces left towards the daylight] and I look at the light, my face is lit, isn't it? I am in the light. Now, if I turn around like that [faces his right, which is dimly lit] my face is in shadow. I'm in darkness. And what I see is in shadow; the works of darkness. Now, there is the light and there is darkness. This is the Presence [turns to the light], the presence of the light, the presence of God and this [turns to the shade] is absence. And our human condition is absence. Adam fell from the Garden of Eden, from paradise, he fell in consciousness, to a lower state of consciousness, of absence from the presence of God, and this is the human condition ... and this is what's called sin. This is where The blind lead the blind, so we think we need education. We turn away from the source of life so we get ill and, of course, the wages of sin is death. Everything that dies is sin. That's what sin is. Sin is death. Now real life is what Jesus says "I am the light ... he who walks in light, does not walk in darkness but has the light of life." [Turns to face the daylight] This is eternal life, that's what man really is. In Spirit, enlightenment, he lives in light, he lives with God, he walks with God, [then turns to face the dark] and this is absence, and all human shortages, poverty, and desire, is because we are trying to make up for what we've lost. And so we try to fill ourselves up with other bits of darkness and, of course, nothing works, it all has an end. It comes to an end. And then we are disappointed. So, we look for more things but we are just playing with darkness, when all we've got to do is this [turns to the light]. And what is repentance? That's repentance, it's turning to the light. It's so simple.
Iain: But who is turning back to the light?
John: Well, man has a choice. In order to be what we are, we have to come out of what we are not. Now then, here, you and I are sitting in our bodies. But in a few years these bodies will die, go back to dust. Am I the body? Is this what I am? I live in it. If I raise my hand ... look, I raise my hand, but am I the body? What am I? Well, let's take it a bit further. I think these thoughts, but my thoughts change from day to day. There's nothing consistent about thoughts. My emotions are like a seesaw up and down, this way and that. The changing conditions of my life are here today and gone tomorrow. So, what's left? If I eliminate what I'm not, what's left? Now you are looking at me and deep in your eyes is some sort of recognition, I can call it light. Well, the trouble is if we put a name to it we limit it, but there is that Unlimited and that is what I am. What is the name of God? I Am that I Am. How did Jesus describe himself when Pilate said "Who are you?" Before Abraham was, I Am. Timeless, spaceless, indescribable, pure being, being oneself, I Am. That's what it's all about, discovering one's self. Discovering what we are and when we discover what we are then we can begin to be of use.
Iain: And your journey through its ups and downs, through life, your human journey has been taking you towards I Am.
John: Towards that, yes.
Iain: Yes, and in a way, all our journeys are taking us towards I Am.
John: Of course. That's right.
Iain: But it's not always easy to see as there are so many distractions.
John: Well, at the beginning of course, we don't see it. We may read it in the Bible but we don't really know what it means.
Iain: And you describe yourself now as a quiet old man of regular habits, going up and down the hill to church everyday, and you sit just there [points to his left] from five o'clock in the morning for two or three hours - you were there at five o'clock this morning. When it's warm you sit on a bench outside - you don't speak much, except in interviews with Conscious TV. And your adventures are on the inside. What adventures do you have on the inside?
John: Oh, my dear, it never ends [laughs]. Well, I suppose that could bring me on to the great subject of prayer. Would you like me to go on to that?
Iain: Yes, absolutely.
John: Can I take you back to that sitting on a mountainside in South America, when I felt I received a message, To make whole, be whole?
Iain: Yes, when the voice - you felt a voice spoke to you, that we spoke about in Part One.
John: Yes, To make whole, be whole. If you laid a blanket on the ground and then took hold of the centre and lifted it up, it pulls up the rest of the blanket with it, doesn't it? Now, whatever we do affects the world around us, doesn't it? Smile and the world smiles with you. And with the raising of consciousness, which is really what we are talking about ... though you may not see the effect, though other people around you may think you are just a silly old fool sitting there ... the raising of consciousness inevitably raises consciousness of what's around you. Just like when the sun comes out in spring, you can't help that every part, every blade of grass, every little bug responds. Well, really, effective prayer is the raising of consciousness to where, of course, in Spirit there’s no problem. Nobody dies, nobody is ill, nobody's hungry.
Iain: But what's the primary difference for you between prayer and meditation, is there a difference?
John: Oh, there isn't any at all. But to begin with, like at the bottom of a mountain everything seems different, doesn't it, with lots of different paths. Prayer is generally taken to mean, at least in the Western Church, an appeal from someone who is separate, to God, who's over there as another separate entity. So, we say "Lord have mercy," or something like this; I'm the sinner and there's God. So, we start off from separation and we usually pray for some object, some other item of separation, "Make Mummy better," or something. So, we are playing with separation, we are still in the world of separation. Now, as long as we stay in these verbal expressions of separation, that's how it is. Wishful thinking, may or may not have an effect. Does it influence God? Well, how can I answer that? How do I know? But eventually, you may say fewer words and do a bit more listening, or just sitting there and feeling the presence of God, or maybe not. Now, meditation starts from a slightly different place because instead of using words to express thought, or desires, or even faith, you don't use words, apart from a mantra word, which is really a symbolic word. You let go, which actually lets go of separation. The aim of meditation is union. So, both methods, prayer and meditation, pursued ... but when I say pursued, it takes much practice, time and faith ... will bring you to union, will bring you closer to God. So, really they merge, they become the same thing, but I know it's very confusing at the beginning because prayer ... well, people think of prayer and meditation as two different things. It's really just two different approaches to the same thing.
Iain: Just reading my notes again; "I used to consider myself rather unhappy, a sort of misfit exile in the wrong place, which I was not able to explain. Lately, though, I know what I am, and where I belong and even though outer circumstances sometimes pale, I often feel the happiest, most blessed man alive.
Iain: Must be wonderful. You feel the "happiest, most blessed man alive."
John: And, best of all, I know now what to do … the answer to that awful question, What should I do? I found the work. This is work, real WORK. Somebody dies, you know he doesn't die. Somebody's ill, you feel the wholeness. Someone's poor, they’re not, for abundance is all around. Everything’s made whole. Now, people may not believe you, well … that's the human condition, isn't it. But this is what wise men have always said. It's all given to you. It's a gift! The Kingdom of God is total, there's no need at all, nothing dies, nothing's ill, nothing's unhappy … it’s all light.
Iain: And I think the wonderful thing is, for me, that you never gave up. You had your ups and downs, you are seventy-nine now, it wasn't always easy but there was a determination, a motivation, a discipline to your meditation and prayer.
John: And the wonderful thing is that all that I as man have failed to do, I now realise, is done by God, by Spirit. You know, I write books and most people of course don't read them but Spirit penetrates everywhere. In a way, even more so than sunshine, the real Spirit enters every heart, you don't have to do anything, all you have to do is remove the obstacle of 'me', my own blindness. You just have to come out of this blot upon creation, which is John Butler, this darkness with which I infect the world and create the works of dark. When you let that go, which is full repentance and totally accept Thy will, not mine, abandon the ego, the demon within you, the devil within you … then everything that we try inadequately to do as people, is done automatically by God.
Iain: Okay, I think that's...
John: Perfection is achieved.
Iain: I think that's a wonderful place to finish. Thank you John very much, for coming along and talking to us at Conscious TV. I am just going to show your books briefly again. Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment, Mystic Approaches and two you've just given me, Destined to Joy and Do you Pray for Me? And maybe we will take a couple of shots of the church so people can see the context from which we've done the interview but more importantly, where you spend four-to-five hours a day, meditating. Thank you again.
John: Thank you.
Iain: And thank you for watching Conscious TV.
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