The inner voice in the silence

Today I am thinking about some of the people whose writings have had most impact on me.

One is Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Sufi master who is in charge of the Sufi Golden Centre in San Francisco. In his book, Catching the Thread, he writes:

For each seeker the spiritual path will be different, because each of us is different. Every lover makes his own unique pilgrimage within the heart. And He loves us for our own individual self. He loves the fact that we are different because He made us different. In this love affair there can be neither comparison nor competition. We each must find our own way of loving Him, of being with Him.

Many people have difficulty grasping the concept of God, perhaps because of the tendency to think of God anthropomorphically. But Father Timothy Radcliffe, the former Provincial of the Dominican Order in England, reminds us: ‘God is not another person. God is the deepest interior of one’s self’.

Father Bede Griffiths founded a Christian ashram in India where he integrated the spiritual teachings of the Upanishads with those of Christianity. My final quotation comes from him:

I believe that each one of us has an inner light, an inner guide, which will lead us through the shadows and illusions by which we are surrounded, and open our minds to the truth. It may come through poetry or art, or philosophy or science, or more commonly through encounter with people and events day by day.

Personally I find that meditation, morning and evening every day, is the best and most direct method of getting in touch with reality. In meditation I let go of everything of the outer world of the senses, of the inner world of thoughts, and listen to the inner voice of the Word, which comes in the silence. Then, in the silence, I become aware of the presence of God, and I try to keep this awareness throughout the day.

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A Dream

Some years ago I awoke from such a deep dream that I immediately closed my eyes and went back into the dream in order to stay there as long as possible, absorbing the atmosphere of silence and stillness.

In the dream I was walking down the main street of a small country town, accompanied by the actress Jane Lapotaire. The impression was that we had come to a place of deep silence. It was early in the morning – very still. There was no one around.

Eventually we came to a building which had been a Catholic church in the 12th century but was now a Quaker Meeting House. On the door, acting as a handle, was a circular flower carved in wood. I intimated to Jane that we should enter for the Quaker Meeting but she intimated (no words were spoken) that we should walk on a little and stay in the open.

At the end of the street I saw an archway leading to an Oxford college and my thought was that I would like to show Jane this place of learning and scholarship. But she was leaning her head against the wall of a house, listening. I then did the same.

There was such a freshness in the air, like a day in the Mediterranean presaging great heat later on. No one stirred. The silence was intense and the air so pure. I was reminded of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn:

What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel
Is emptied of this folk this pious morn?

It is in this Ode, of course, that Keats also writes:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
….
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
….
Beauty is truth, truth beauty! That is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

I have come to recognise that what the dream was telling me was to go deeper into this silence and the practice of meditation – and to leave the area of the intellect, of academia, unexplored at this time – to go with the heart and not the head.

Frequently since that dream, often in meditation, I have gone back into that place of silence.

Through a Stained Glass Window

The artist John Petts created some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen. He once told me how one of his windows, depicting St Francis, came to be made.

He was asked to visit a very handsome and energetic woman who questioned him as to how long it would take to make a stained window for the local church. When he told her it would take several months she answered, ‘Oh dear: I shall be gone by then.’ She then told him that she was dying of cancer.

So he offered to put aside his other commissions and forge ahead, at which her face broke into a wonderful smile. ‘I have had such a blessed life,’ she said, ‘and this is just one way in which I can say thank you.’

John Petts offered to design a window of St Francis preaching to the birds. She did not want the usual inscription ‘in memory of’ but simply the words ‘A Thanksgiving – Margaret Griffiths’.

As the window grew, she shrank and became bed-ridden. Eventually it was completed but she was already near her end and, knowing she would never be able to get to see it in his workshop, John Petts had colour transferences made which were then projected onto the wall at the end of her bed.

In the window St Francis is dancing for joy; a salmon is leaping out of the river, a butterfly hovers overhead, and a hare is dancing on its hind legs, while birds of every description swoop and perch.

How did she respond? Her husband told him. ‘Such a smile! Such a smile as I have never seen!’

Basking in silence

I remember one man who asked if he might come to our meditation group in London. We were all seated in a circle, our eyes closed when, half way through the meditation, we heard him get up, leave the room and walk along the passage. He then came back noisily into the room and said quite loudly that he didn’t know how to open the front door. At this point I got up and quietly led him to the front door, opened it, let him out, then returned to finish the meditation. He was a gentle soul but clearly he found the silence disturbing.

Another friend, suffering from a painful bereavement and weeping constantly, was invited to join our group. I said, ‘You don’t have to say a mantra or even follow the breath; simply immerse yourself in the silence’. There was a very powerful silence that evening. During it she fell into a deep and healing sleep, and awoke refreshed and comforted.

Some meditation groups insist on everyone following the same formula, rather like joining an institution where you have a set of rules and regulations. In our group each individual follows their own form of meditating. Each of us is on our own journey and we follow the route that seems right for us. Just learning to bask in silence is for many a blessing in itself.

Only Five Minutes to Spare

In 1654 Blaise Pascal wrote, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I thought of this when recently someone wrote to me to say their life was so crowded it was difficult even ‘to find five minutes for God’. It is as well, I thought, that God has no ego! The idea that out of twenty four hours one can only find five minutes in which to meditate is strange. And yet, if one is a beginner, better a regular five minutes than none.

What I find myself suggesting more and more to people, especially those who are busy, or have many preoccupations, is to find a phrase that can act as a mantra which they can mentally repeat at intervals throughout the day, perhaps when waiting in a queue at the supermarket, or travelling on a train or bus; which can be repeated during wakeful moments in the night. It may be a phrase such as ‘That I may be filled with loving kindness’, or like the one I use which is, ‘God is present. God is here. God is now.’

Such a form of meditation acts as a life-line, a reminder of another order of reality.

A universe of unimaginable magnitude

Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at the fire-folk sitting in the air!
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

I remember one August night lying on my back outside on the grass with my partner as we watched the Shower of Perseus – star after star falling, swooping through the sky. We were in County Cork where we lived for a while, on the edge of a cliff.

I was fortunate in being brought up in the countryside and for most of my life I’ve had a second home far from the city lights where I could watch the stars without light pollution, diamonding the sky.

Joseph Campbell, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, describes how – on opening the National Geographic Atlas of the World – he found a two-page spread depicting our solar system and the galaxy of billions of stars: ‘What those pages opened to me, in short, was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude’.

When we meditate with our eyes closed it is all too easy to become self-involved rather than opening ourselves to the unknown; opening ourselves, in a very deep sense, to the realisation that neither we nor our planet are the centre of the universe. What quantum physics shows us is that each one of us is part of a vast design, that we are all involved.

And so sometimes it can be helpful to meditate with our eyes open, fixed on a certain spot. Where I sit to meditate I look out on a courtyard and the garden beyond. I fix my gaze on a small area while saying my mantra, or simply following the breath. Into that space may come a robin, or a young thrush, or a bumble bee, and I become aware also of the sap rising in plants and trees, their roots pushing down into the dark earth, while their leaves and branches reach up to the sky. As I breathe in, so I breathe in all of creation of which I am a small part.

Perhaps it goes back to the verse my mother used to sing to me as a small child:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are!

Where are we going?

The latest statistics show that in England, unlike America, the number of Christians is declining. Attendance at Church of England services has dropped below a million. Frank Field, MP, himself a Christian, writes that there is a real possibility that Christianity could die out in the UK in the next generation.

Yet I do not doubt that the teachings of Jesus, like those of the Buddha and of the Upanishads, will continue to enrich individual lives.

What matters less than converting to Islam, to Judaism, to Christianity or Buddhism, is setting out on one’s own journey towards the Truth. And so the closing words of Christopher Fry’s play, A Sleep of Prisoners, resonate:

Affairs are now soul-size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake.
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

What many people are increasingly discovering is that, although we each set out alone on our inner journey, we are in the company of other pilgrims. As Herman Hesse wrote in Journey to the East:

I realised that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries, and each member, each group, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings. The knowledge passed through my mind like a ray of light and immediately reminded me of a phrase by the poet Novalis, ‘Where are we really going? Always home!’

Going on

A colleague has just e-mailed me, saying ‘I need to find some space within my head so that I can breathe amidst all the noise.’

It is a cry one hears increasingly in our ever more frantic world and yet the very solution to it we too often shrug away. How can sitting silently, following the breath as it comes in and goes out, or mentally repeating a word or a phrase, help us to find a space of calm, so that we are not pushed to and fro by conflicting emotions?

Like so many things in life we have to begin with a commitment. We have to reach a point where we realise that to take time out to meditate, to be silent, to be still, is essential to our well being.

All creative activity is a challenge and a testing, whether it is living out a relationship with another human being, bringing up children or creating a work of art. Time and time again we fail. But we should never despair. Each of us is a vulnerable human being, not a god, and though we may frequently stumble and fall, we do not give up. We pick ourselves up and continue. We persevere. For the dedicated actor every night is a first night, a fresh start. As Samuel Beckett says at the end of his novel Malloy ‘I can’t go on. I must go on. I will go on.’