Goethe says, ‘Become what you are’; which means become what your full potential is.
The pattern of our life is different for each of us and our task as we grow older is to watch the pattern unfold and help it reach its completion. Sadly, and in many cases tragically, some never realise their full potential and in old age become bitter and withdrawn. Often they have failed to realise that the many disappointments and setbacks we all encounter are, in fact, opportunities for growth, so that with George Herbert we shall be enabled to say ‘In age I bud again!’
The discovery of the inner realms within us, our potential, is a rich and at times demanding process, one that sometimes calls for a skilled guide. I was indeed fortunate when, having suffered a breakdown at the age of twenty-one, I was guided to Dr Franz Elkisch, an analyst who had been trained by Carl Jung himself. It was he who helped me to assemble the pieces of my own jigsaw until the picture of who I was meant to be emerged. Which is why I respond to this prayer:
I beseech the heavenly forces to bless and assist me to take responsibility for myself so that I can be the person who, from the beginning of creation, I was meant to be. I give thanks because it will be so now. Amen.
Joseph Campbell says in one of his discourses:
What is unknown is the fulfilment of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on earth. And you are the only one to do it . . . Get rid of the life you have planned in order to have the life that is waiting to be yours.
Spirituality has to do with the depths of the individual. It is only when we listen inwardly and attentively to the claims of the spirit that renewal comes. It would seem, therefore, that the nature of spirituality is built into the human psyche and that such holistic awareness is found potentially in every human being, whatever their religious beliefs or none. This would imply there is such a thing as secular spirituality. Time and again I am reminded of the words of the Oracle at Delphos:
O Man, look deep within yourself and thou shalt find therein a well of Truth for ever springing up!
Spirituality is a recognition that there is something other than the course of everyday events; but what is this ‘other’? Many scientists, especially distinguished physicists such as David Bohm, believe that everything in the universe affects everything else because they are all part of the unbroken whole, where everything is connected to everything else. It is what David Bohm termed the Implicate Order.
This, of course, is the central teaching of the East: that everything is one. As St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:
You will learn more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you more than you can acquire from the mouth of a teacher.
It is only when we begin to look and listen, not only outwardly but also inwardly, that we begin to experience everything as vital and living. We discern the great in the small, the extra-ordinary in the ordinary or, as Blake put it, we ‘see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour’.
I recently came across a review I wrote for The Tablet of the last book by Michael Mayne, the former Dean of Westminster Abbey. In 2005 he was faced with a diagnosis of cancer of the jaw which would, he realised, test his deepest beliefs. His book, The Enduring Melody is, as Alan Bennett wrote, ‘heroic, humbling and inspiring’.
Throughout his illness his wife Alison was his constant companion and it is this that leads him to write most movingly about all committed relationships, including same-sex relationships. He quotes from William Blake: ‘We are put on earth that we may learn to bear the beams of love’. In such relationships we become, he says, the occasion for each other’s self-realisation, for ultimately it is through one another and in each other that we may be entitled at the last to say, as God in the burning bush said, ‘I am who I am.’
Today I would like to quote from a small book recently published by Mud Pie Books entitled The Buddha by Tony Morris. At one point he says:
The point of meditation is not to confine one’s practice to perfecting a particular mental technique but, rather, to bring it into every aspect of daily life, at all times of day or night. In this regard meditation becomes a sensibility as much as a practice, something we do with every breath and every step we take.
This is my own practice, to repeat mentally my mantra throughout the day and whenever I wake in the night. Gradually one becomes aware of a deep well within from which we constantly draw nourishment and healing.
Let me end with some words from Markings, the journal of Dag Hammarskjöld, a remarkable Secretary-General of the United Nations:
Now. When I have overcome my fears – of others, of myself, of the underlying darkness – at the frontier of the unheard-of. Here ends the known. But from a source beyond it, something fills my being with its possibilities – at the frontier.
When one has been declared redundant, fired from one’s job, a relationship comes to an end or a beloved partner dies, it is painful to let go and face the unknown. Will I ever hold down another job? How can I go on living when the one who meant most to me is no longer here? …
We cannot escape this sense of desolation, nor should we attempt to do so, but each day, bit by bit, learn to confront the emptiness.
The emptiness is, of course, inside us. The work or the person that made life meaningful for us is no longer there and so we are thrown back on ourselves. We all have occasions to grieve. Think of the last lines of ‘The Oven Bird’ by Robert Frost:
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
We have to trust to destiny that something new does exist around the corner. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has written, ‘When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure.’ At a time of deep loss, of seeming failure, it is time to obey the command: ‘Let down your nets into the deep.’
If we can go down into our own depths, face the pain and the emptiness and the loneliness, we shall find new growth, new possibilities which will enable us to respond to others with a deeper understanding.
Dreams have played an important part in the history of nations as well as of individuals, long before the emergence of the psychology of dreams. But when we are fortunate enough to have what I would refer to as a significant dream, we should not treat it like a crossword puzzle, but learn to meditate on the dream, to carry it about with us, allowing it slowly to reveal its deeper meaning. As Gurdjieff said, ‘One does not set out to change one’s self; one merely becomes open to the possibility of change the more aware one becomes’.
Recently I came across a note I wrote for the actor playing Jesus in my production of the Chester Mystery Plays:
The actor must be continually aware of the wider and deeper implications of each of Jesus’s remarks for, like all Gnostic teachers, he sees things sub specie aeternitatis.
It is all too easy to take Jesus’s remarks literally.
‘Lazarus, come forth!’
‘Loose him and let him go!’
‘Go and sin no more!’
‘Take up your cross!’
Always the command is: go and do. You have your freedom, you now know who you are; you know your own unique destiny. Each of us has our task to do.
Jesus does not bind people with rules and regulations, but sets each person free to become the person they are meant to be. To achieve this we have to learn how to be still — and listen!
Silence is not easily found in Western society nowadays. In many households the television is on all day even when no-one is watching or listening. People are locked into their mobiles and I-pods and do not hear the sound of birds or children playing.
Yet silence remains a precious gift which goes way beyond any words we may speak. As Claudio says in Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy; I were little happy if I could say how much’.
In our practice of meditation we sit in silence. We learn that — in the words of the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas — ‘the meaning is in the waiting’. Slowly, over weeks and months, the sands within us shift and change; we find ourselves growing into a deeper aware-ness, more alert to the needs of others, while neuroses and other problems dissolve of their own accord. We have only to persevere in our practice.
Once a small boy said to me with much passion, ‘God is a feel, not a think’ and I thought: Wow! Children have such remarkable insight and directness.
There was a period when — as the author of the seven books of The Adventures of Odd and Elsewhere — I would be invited to schools and libraries in England and Ireland to tell stories about my two heroes. The children were about nine or ten, and time and again I found myself startled by their directness. On one occasion — with the whole school crowded into the hall, seated cross-legged on the floor — a small boy at the front asked: ‘Where do you get the ideas for your books?’ He said it with such urgency and I could sense the whole school waiting to hear how I would respond. In a flash I said to him, ‘Do you have a garden?’ He said ‘yes’. I then asked him what he grew in it. ‘Seeds’ he replied, ‘and they grow into plants.’
I knew then that I had my answer: ‘And I have seeds of ideas. I plant them in my books and they grow into stories!’ There was an audible sigh of satisfaction around the hall.
On another occasion I took along a very old teddy bear which had been given to me, one of the first ever made. It was dressed in a frock so I called her Harmony. At one school a small boy asked why she was called this, so I said ‘Why do you think?’ He paused for a few moments and then said, ‘Because she doesn’t harm anyone!’
And harmony means exactly that. It is the state into which — if we persevere with our practice of meditation — we arrive: we are at harmony within ourselves and so will never hurt or wound another, while also we become more awake to the needs of others.