I was once sent a card with these words on it: ‘Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves – for they will have endless amusement!’
It is easy to take ourselves too seriously, and to take offence, even where none is meant. Yet if we persevere in the practice of meditation we find ourselves becoming more objective. If the criticism is valid then we take note and heed it; if we are being praised we do not let it go to our head. In other words we are no longer at the mercy of our emotions.
The word humility has a rather old-fashioned ring to it these days. It is linked, however, to the word humorous which, in turn, is linked to humus, meaning soil. As long as we have our feet firmly on the ground, we shall be able to accept criticism or praise with a certain detachment. And this, in human relationships, is crucial.
Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem, ‘O Sea, my River runs to thee!’ A similar thought is found in the Upanishads, the sacred teachings of ancient India. People follow different streams – some straight, some meandering, according to their temperament and the prevailing culture, depending on what they consider best and most appropriate to their needs; but, in the end, ‘all reach You just as rivers enter the ocean’.
If we want to learn to play a musical instrument we know that this means practising daily. The same is true of any skill – it is a question of application. Jesus said, ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking backwards is worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.’ In other words we have to make a commitment and persevere. The practice of meditation is perhaps even more demanding than ploughing in that it requires us to let go of all mental processes, to set to one side those endless thoughts that buzz like bluebottles! We have to empty our minds and rest in the stillness, to be patient and simply persevere, day in and day out.
You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Move on from here. Continue your journey. Know this and then understand. Return and re-build Jerusalem.
These words from the Old Testament apply to those many occasions in life when we get stuck, and yet we realise it is time to move on. ‘Re-building Jerusalem’ is then seen as re-building our own inner citadel. It may be that we are faced with divorce, or the loss of our job, or the failure of a project on which we have set our heart. In each case it is time to move on!
‘Let down your nets into the deep!’ As always the words of Jesus carry a meaning deeper than the obvious. In order to re-connect with the inner core of our being we have to descend into our own depths. This takes courage and sometimes the need for gentle therapy. But it is in these depths that, whatever we may mean by the word ‘God’, we find an inner strength.
The darkness before dawn is a time of waiting. As Hegel wrote, ‘The owl of wisdom spreads its wings with the falling of dusk.’ A seed grows quietly in the dark depths of the soil. Change comes quietly and invisibly on the inside. We have but to persevere in our practice of silence.
‘Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man,’ wrote the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. It is only when we prefer analysis to silence, he says, that they become constant and insoluble problems. We are not meant to resolve all our contradictions but to live with them and rise above them. As the Orthodox nun Mother Maria used to say, ‘Learn to carry conflicts, don’t force solutions.’ And so, patiently, through the practice of meditation, we learn.
After meditating we become more intensely aware of the being-ness of people and of plants, animals and things. The moment we open our eyes and see a vase of flowers, a glass of water, a lit candle, we see it with the intensity of a child or an artist. We sense the essence of the person or the object.
Thomas Traherne reminds us of this:
Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord, pardon my ingratitude and pity my dullness who am not sensible to these gifts. The freedom of Thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered. Thou presented me with Thy blessings, and I was not aware. But now I give thanks for Thy inestimable favours bestowed on me.
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.’