This year I became 90 and I observe how the past several years have seen a great deal of stripping away: letting go of our home of 40 years in Wales; moving from the London flat where my partner, Hywel Jones, and I lived for some 50 years; getting rid of many items of furniture, thousands of books, scores of pictures, endless boxes of china, antiques, toys and curios.
And then, ironically, having to let go of my companion of 54 years, who died of a brain tumour.
This is not an argument to say we should have no possessions, many of which carry memories of key moments in our lives, but rather to realise that everything we have is a gift and there comes a time when the gift must move on. If we cling to things or to people we cannot move forward.
And so it is in the deep silence of meditation that we move forward when we are willing to let go and descend into the emptiness. In fact it is not emptiness — when we go deep enough we find pure being-ness. It is like those trees in autumn which, after their final blaze of colour, shed all their leaves and are revealed in their essence, trunk and branches against the sky. Still the roots go deep into the ground and the sap remains.
There is a wonderful phrase in the Psalms which I asked John Rowlands Pritchard to calligraph for me. It is simply this: ‘Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.’ St. Benedict says: ‘Listen with the ear of the heart.’
It is in the deep stillness and silence of meditation that we find our true centre. As Jung put it, ‘Find the meaning and make the meaning your goal.’
There are many kinds of bereavement, not just the loss of a loved one by death. We each die many times in a lifetime. We may experience the death of an ambition, a love or a relationship, the loss of youth and, perhaps most common of all today, the loss of one’s job. Being declared redundant is for many a loss of identity, for if I can no longer say I am a builder, a mechanic, a teacher, a postman, then who am I?
How we deal with each death will determine how we deal with our eventual departure from this life. I recall what a physiotherapist who worked at St Michael’s Hospice in Hereford once said to me. She observed how those who had learned to let go with each minor death were the ones who were able to die simply, whereas those who had resisted every change in their life and had not learned how to let go, had the hardest deaths. We have to learn how to be flexible, as in the Shaker hymn, ‘Simple Gifts’:
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be …
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come round right!
In the practice of meditation we work to find for ourselves a deep inner silence, but there is also negative silence which can happen between couples when each is so aflame with anger that neither can speak. This silence can be deeply wounding. In all relationships we have to learn how to talk things through, quietly, when difficulties or misunderstandings arise, which they will, as two temperaments are likely to clash from time to time. But a brooding, sulking silence will achieve nothing other than more psychological damage. At such times it is necessary to sit down and gently, however painfully, talk through the problem.
If the couple are in the habit of meditating then it may help them both to meditate before talking. In Finland, before each Cabinet meeting, all members have a sauna, the heat from which helps to eliminate aggression and hostilities. As Erich Fromm says, love, like life, is something we have to work at constantly.
On the audio attached to this blog where I read some of the prose and poetry that have shaped me during my life, I say at one point that I regard Love as the greatest of all the arts. Erich Fromm in his remarkable book The Art of Loving writes about this at length. Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of their being. No-one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless she/he loves the other. And more than that, one perceives in the loved one that which is potential and yet to be realised. The challenge of all committed relationships is to allow the freedom of individual growth within the container of the relationship. Just as we have to work at life, so we have to work at love.
When we are first learning to meditate it helps to find the right setting where one can be silent and alone. But as we become accustomed to the practice we should be able to meditate anywhere, alone or in company, in silence or amidst much noise.
We have first to learn how to subdue the wandering mind and our innate restlessness, but slowly out of the inner calm emerges freedom from all disturbing emotions, anxiety, grief or depression.
Gertrude Stein, the American writer, was not being pretentious when she wrote, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ She was trying to emphasise the essence of the rose, to make us look beyond the label. The trouble today is that we use words such as love, peace, God and so on without reflecting on their true meaning. Words have become facts, but words are also symbols pointing the way to deeper meanings. Words can also fail one. In one of his poems, Pope John Paul 11 writes:
Sometimes it happens in conversation: we stand
Facing truth, and lack the words,
Have no gesture, no sign,
And yet, we feel, no words, no gesture
Or sign would convey the whole image
That we must enter alone and face like Jacob.
Those who inculcate silent repetition and reflection on a particular text into their practice of meditation can find the underlying mystery of the words begins to penetrate their life. Those who say the Psalms daily, for example, find that certain lines resonate deeply with their experience:
As one whom his mother comforts.
My heart is ready, O my God.
Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
If we stop short at the surface meaning of the words we shall never experience them as living words, but if we truly meditate upon them we shall, in the words of John Rowlands Pritchard, begin ‘to hear the words of secret silence’.
One can spend a lot of money learning various forms of meditation and one can even pay to gain a diploma in meditation. Meditation has become a market product! I believe, however, that the teaching of meditation should be free. For those thinking they would like to learn about meditation I recommend Mindfulness by Tessa Watt, which is straightforward, simple and practical.
For many the practice begins with something so simple — sitting still and listening. If you are in a park or a garden, just sit still for even fifteen minutes and listen to the sounds around you and the silence within yourself. In our noise-bound society to achieve even this is something of a marvel! Then slowly begin to breathe in and out consciously: breathe in, pause; breathe out, pause. So simple.
Though we should take life seriously we should not take ourselves too seriously! True meditation begets humility and humility begets a sense of humour. Both words are related to humus, the soil. Keeping our feet on the ground enables us to see things objectively so that when someone savages or attacks us, instead of being angry or hitting back, we reflect on where this other person is coming from, what unresolved conflicts in them have unleashed such rage or jealousy, or even — and this is important — we have to ask ourselves what it is in us that has caused this eruption.
I first heard this story in New York. A man was knocked down in an automobile accident. While waiting for the ambulance, one of the bystanders took off her coat, rolled it up and placed it under his head.
‘Are you comfortable?’ she asked.
He replied, ‘I make a good living’.
Many make a good living, but whether they have really lived is another matter. A mother may say to her son, ‘I’d be so proud if you were a doctor’ when, perhaps, the son wants to be a carpenter. So he goes off and becomes a doctor, but at the end of his life he may say, ‘I made a good living, but I’ve never lived. I could have been such a good carpenter but my family didn’t want that’.
Each one of us has our own story to tell, one life to live, one song to sing. The deep fear of many is, I think, less that of physical death than that of dying with their song unsung. Each one of us has a unique story and we cannot discover our greatest meaning unless we learn how to live it.
It is often in the silence of our meditation that we hear the first notes of our own song. Having heard it, it is up to us, in the famous words of Joseph Campbell, to ‘follow our bliss’.