Temples of Silence

Here is a rosary of statements made over the centuries by different individuals about the importance of meditation.

First, from the middle of the sixteenth century, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne: ‘We must get away from the crowd out there, but also from the crowd inside ourselves. We are the obstacle that stands between us and an unobstructed view.’

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

Then, in the nineteenth century, Franz Kafka declared, ‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quite still and solitary’.

In the twentieth century we have Etty Hillesum who died in Auschwitz at the age of 29. A Dutch Jewess, with no religious background, she found her own way to meditate. Here is something she wrote in her diary:

‘Not thinking but listening to what is going on inside you. If you do that for a while every morning you acquire a kind of calm that illumines the whole day… I listen all day to what is inside me, and even when I am with others I am able to draw strength from the most deeply hidden source within myself…’

And lastly, in our own time, some words from a French writer, Christian Bobbin, whose work has just been published for the first time into English by Pauline Matarasso, under the title The Eighth Day. Of all the spiritual writers I have read he is closest to Rilke, surprising us constantly by his imagery:

‘We need to guard ourselves not only against the world, but against our pre-occupation with ourselves, another door by which the world might creep back in like a prowler in a sleeping house.’

Though there are different techniques for meditating, and each of us has to find the one that works for us, there is a vast cathedral, or mosque, or temple.


Anne Battye is one of the UK’s leading exponents of the Alexander Technique and each week I have a lesson with her. Recently we talked about ‘belief’ and she said:

‘I have always had a problem with belief, which is why I felt such relief coming to the Alexander work, where I was simply expected to practise and see what could happen next. For me, its practise includes scientific, philosophic and intuitive knowledge, all blending together in a holistic way. But it doesn’t negate the sense of mystery – which is to me one of the most vital elements of our being.

‘One of my pupils said that, while he was sitting in a cave in the Himalayas meditating, he heard a couple walk past discussing the Alexander Technique. One said to the other, “Don’t you have to believe in it for it to work?” and the other replied, “I don’t believe in it – I simply practise!”’

Belief is an intellectual process, whereas practise leads one into true knowledge of the heart. We no longer have to believe because we know. We don’t have to recite creeds because we live them.

Walking the Path

Whenever I sign copies of my book on meditation, Finding Silence, I always add the words ‘One makes a path by walking.’

Just recently I came across two similar statements which I would like to share with you. The first, from an unknown source, states, ‘Don’t let the distance to be travelled deter you from taking the first step today!’

The second is from Nietzsche: ‘ There is one path in the world no-one can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask – walk!’

It is by patiently persevering in the practice of silent meditation, in whatever form, that we discover the inner centre of our being, the place where our true path begins and ends.  

Summoned by Bells

Robert Frost spoke of how certain lines of great poetry stick to one like burrs caught on a country walk. One line he often recalled was from a Shakespeare sonnet: ‘He that has power to hurt and will do none.’ That, he said, had meant a great deal to him.

The mental repetition of a meaningful phrase, or even a particular word, has the power to penetrate one’s whole being. The words resonate with increasing intensity and we begin to sense new layers of possibility. This is not an intellectual or analytical exercise; rather, it is one of allowing the words to sink deeper and deeper, like pebbles dropping into a pool, so that, whether out walking, waiting for a bus, washing dishes, or waking in the night, the mantra goes on tolling like a temple bell – summoning us to what is beyond and yet, at the same time, closer than close.

But a warning! If we just say the words mechanically or gabble them hurriedly we won’t get very far. And we won’t go very deep. It is slow, quiet, repetition that will, gradually, over time, penetrate our innermost being.   

The Work

Virginia Woolf, after visiting the octogenarian Thomas Hardy, came away with the impression of ‘one delivered of all his work’. Jesus, at the end of his short life, says: ‘Father, I have done the work which Thou gavest me to do.’

Like Jung, I believe that each of us comes into this world with a blueprint of the person we are meant to be.  The tragedy is that so many people do not manage to live their lives to the full. To do this requires work, a word that was central to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, an influential spiritual teacher of the early to mid-twentieth century. He taught that most of us live our lives in ‘a waking sleep’, but that, with work, it is possible to achieve our full potential.

The writer, Katherine Mansfield, who studied with Gurdjieff in the last year of her life, wrote, ‘I want to be what I am becoming. There are no limits to suffering – one rows one’s boat into the darkness. If only one can accept, there is a landscape to be discovered, to be one’s true self without the personal, to be afraid of nothing.’

Travelling Third Class

Time and again our ego gets us into trouble – and even more so when we are trying to meditate!

I am reading a book entitled Zen Dust by Antony Osler, a South African who runs a farm in the Bush, together with a meditation hall where he and his wife lead courses in Zen meditation. He tells the story of his friend Godwin who describes himself as ‘a third class meditator’.

This came about from a time when he was travelling First Class on a train in Sri Lanka but missed his station and so had to get off at the next one and travel back in Third Class. He was standing in the carriage complaining to himself when he realised that he was the only person there who was unhappy. And the reason he was unhappy was because he was still travelling First Class in his mind. The people around him in the carriage were enjoying the noisy chaos of their lives and it made him laugh. That was when he decided to accept being Third Class and he had no more suffering.

Meditation is the same, he said. ‘Don’t expect things to be perfect. Enjoy going Third Class!’  

Under Attack

There are occasions when, out of the blue, someone attacks us verbally. Our natural instinct is to answer back in passionate self-defence. But this only results in further turmoil as accusations and counter-accusations get hurled to and fro. More often than not it is wiser to consider what is the cause of these attacks no matter how unreasonable they seem on the surface. Silence and reflection are almost invariably more effective than retaliation and retribution.

I once had a dream in which I was boarding a coach and just as the doors were closing I saw that a dog was wanting to be let out to defecate. In the next sequence the dog was on my head, shitting all over my face. People ran from me, crying, ‘Monster! He’s a monster!’ Then I thought: am I a monster? And I went in search of a mirror. When I looked in the mirror I saw that I was not a monster, and there was no sign of any dirt – but there was a small bruise under one eye.

When I awoke I pondered this dream and what it meant. It occurred at a time when I was being maligned, when a lot of muck was being thrown at me by two or three individuals, including threatening letters saying that ‘blood would be spilt’!

That much was clear about the dream; but I remained puzzled by the small bruise. It was some while before I grasped its significance: in any collision between two people, even when the accusations are unjust, there is always some aspect in one’s nature, psychology or behaviour that can act as a trigger. Such attacks are rarely one-sided. But it takes time, silence, and self-examination to see this and to recognise our vulnerability.

Animal Lessons

Time and again animals are our teachers. So many of the Saints are associated with them: St Jerome and his lion, St Anthony Abbott and the wild pig, St Hugh of Lincoln’s swan, St Philip of Neri’s cat, St Benedict of Nuria’s raven, St Brigid’s fox, and many more.

The animal story which most fascinates me is that of St Francis of Assissi taming the wild wolf of Gubbio. There is a sense in which we can interpret such a story symbolically, the wolf representing Francis’ shadow side. Each of us has such a psychic shadow, and until we have learned to come to terms with it and harness its energies, it will continue to threaten us, as the wolf of Gubbio threatened the people of that region.

For the Millennium at Bleddfa I raised the money to commission from the Irish sculptor, Ken Thompson, a life size statue of Tobias and the Angel, which was unveiled by Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales. We see the angel talking earnestly into the ear of the young Tobias, but what is especially moving is the figure of Tobias’ small dog, standing of his hind legs, as though saying, ’It is all very well for you, Master, talking with angels, but don’t forget me down here!’ for animals are so often our teachers and healers.

I remember when I was a student at Oxford, there was one morning when I lay on the floor in despair, and my marmalade cat came and lay on my chest, his paws on either side of my neck, his face looking into mine and purring deeply. Slowly I relaxed, breathing deeply and fell into a profound sleep.

And I am reminded of the story told me by a friend who is a psycho-therapist and who had one client who had AIDS and was too frightened to speak. On one occasion my friend forgot to close the door of his consulting room and his dog came in, went straight to the man, and jumped up onto his lap and settled there. The man began to stroke the dog and suddenly was able to speak.

Three Forms

There are three main forms of meditation.

The first is called, in the Indian tradition, bhakti, meaning devotion. It is for those who reach out to a Supreme Being, whether that is called Allah, God or Brahman. It usually involves the use of a mantra, a sacred word or phrase which is mentally repeated over and over. In India it may be Om or Ram; in Islam it involves chanting the 99 names of Allah, while for the Russian Orthodox Christian it is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer:  ‘We may all be one, as Father you are in me, and I am in you, so they are in me and I am in them, that we may all be one.’

For the agnostic or atheist, or those who find that religion gets in the way, there is a simple form of meditation taught for centuries as part of the Buddhist tradition, which consists in observing the breath as it comes in and out. Simply following the breath is a means of reaching an inner centre, psychologically and spiritually, without any religious commitment. By concentrating on the breath at the tip of the nose the breathing becomes finer. Gradually the breath slows and the mind goes towards the heart, to the very centre of our being. It heightens what Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the Power of Now’, a deepening awareness of the present moment and of a centre within that enables us to withstand the ebb and flow of emotions. It is called Mindfulness Meditation, and it is easy to see why it is so popular in our present culture in the West.

The third form of meditation is that practised by Quakers. It consists of centring down into the silence, gently dismissing all wandering thoughts, focusing on the silence within. During such silence an insight or an image may arise from the unconscious and float to the surface of our consciousness, where it might provide the answer to a current problem, or deepen our understanding. Sometimes in a Quaker Meeting an individual may be moved to speak aloud and share such an insight. But some of the most powerful Meetings I have experienced have been sixty minutes of vibrant silence.

Divining Within

The Buddha taught meditation primarily as a means of understanding the transience of all things. Buddhism does not posit a Divine Being, but is a philosophy for life.

However, meditation can sometimes also lead to an awareness of a Divine Being. St Augustine wrote, ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.’ And the Psalmist says, ‘ I strove to fathom this problem – too hard for my mind – until I pierced the mysteries of God’.

In order to re-connect with the inner core of our being we have to descend into our own depths. It is in those depths that some, like Etty Hillesum, encounter that which they call God.

Once, teaching a course on ritual at the University of Colorado I set my students the task of writing a prayer to the known or unknown God. The most moving of these was this one, written by Dickson Musslewhite:

With the unsecuring sea stretching
Before me,
To mystery
I make my pledge.
To search
To swim
To dive as deep as I can.

With the unsecuring sea stretching
Before me,
To mystery
I give my thanks.
For you I am thankful
With you I am,
Without you I am not.