A Life Transformed

I think often of some words by Dr Martin Israel:

‘To be fully oneself is the greatest joy we can know, for at last we are free. How can we know God? Simply by living in the present moment and responding  positively  to those around us and the challenges they might bring. This is spirituality – no longer to be thought of as the preserve of religion. The journey into our own inner nature is always the way to God. In this lies eternal joy’.

Too often religions can become fossilised, instututionalised – and even repressive.  To join a religious group can be a support and guide, but what is being realised increasingly today is that individuals can find their own way without going anywhere near a church, mosque or synagogue. An outstanding example of this is Etty Hillesum, whose story I have mentioned before, who, simply through the practice of meditation, found that there was a deep well inside her ‘and in it dwells God.’

It was on 9 March 1941 that this 27 year old Dutch Jewish student living in enemy occupied Amsterdam made the first entry in a diary that was to become one of the most remarkable documents to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust. Over the course of the next two and a half years, an insecure, chaotic and troubled young woman was transformed into someone who inspired those with whom she shared the suffering of the transit camp at Westerbrook and with whom she eventually died at Auschwitz.  Through her diary and letters she continues to inspire those whose lives she has touched since.

I recommend Patrick Woodhouse’s excellent introduction to her life and work: Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed, published by Bloomsbury.  

The Great Fish

Meditating is like gazing into a pool and our busy, distracting thoughts are like the ripples disturbing the surface of the water. Slowly we become aware how, below the surface, everything is still. Once the turbulence dies down and the water becomes clear we can see into the depths.

The most vivid example of this process is one that happened when I was leading a retreat in a large country house in Suffolk. On a cold day in March a group of us were sitting, swathed in blankets, around a large ornamental pool. Our meditation was to gaze into that pool. In it the grey-blue sky was reflected, its stillness disturbed at first only by the passage of a bird reflected in the water, a crow making its way to the nearby woods. Then, beneath the surface of the mirror, among the dark roots of water lilies, we became aware of a large carp moving slowly, appearing and disappearing. At the heart of every pool the Great Fish lies waiting but we cannot command it. It appears of its own will and in the same manner disappears. When the mirror reflects nothing but the empty sky, even then, the Great Fish is there, deep beneath the surface.

We sat on, watching and waiting. We saw the mirror change colour as the sky became green and then, softly, snowflakes began to fall and we watched as each met its image in the water and was dissolved in the Great Pool, becoming one with the infinite. ‘When you fix your heart on one point,’ said the Buddha, ‘then nothing is impossible for you.’ At the heart of the Pool the Great Fish lies waiting.   

Darkness

Black Beauty is a famous children’s novel, and there can indeed be a primal beauty about darkness, when we sense nature at work in the earth, in rocks, rivers and oceans, and in the sky with its mysterious nocturnal activity.

Dark and light, as the Tao teaches, are an inseparable part of Nature. Perhaps, when it comes to the inner spiritual journey, rather than the image of darkness we should use phrases such as ‘the cloud of unknowing’, a fog, a mist that at times has the capacity to obscure all landmarks on our journey. We peer into the mist, seeking our way forward. Sitting in silent meditation we frequently have no idea where we are journeying to!

Often in life it can seem that we are trapped in a tunnel of darkness. It may be the blindness of grief at the failure of a relationship, or the death of someone close to us. The tunnel seems unending. But, rather than rail against the darkness, the secret is to learn what it has to teach us. Every setback is a challenge to advance. We can choose to go backwards, or to remain stuck, or to move forward, confident in the knowledge that in time the dawn will come.

Vibrant Silence

One Easter Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, I attended the local Quaker Meeting for Worship. At one point I was moved to rise and say, ‘There is something dead about this meeting.’  The rest of the hour was passed in total silence but, at the end, instead of being outraged by my comment, everyone gathered round saying, ‘How did you know? Will you come back next Sunday and we will bring a picnic and explore this.’

Silence can be dead or it can be vibrant. Some of the most powerful Quaker Meetings I have attended have been those when no-one was moved to speak, when the whole hour was passed in a silence so vibrant that we all emerged from it totally energised.

But how to be truly silent? Often when we meditate we try too hard.  Reflecting on this I recall something an Alexander Technique teacher once said while giving me a lesson: ‘Be focused but not intense.’ In focused silence a message may sometimes appear – like writing on a wall. Let me give a dramatic example of this.

Many years ago when I started the Hampstead Theatre in London it was a very stressful time. There were no grants in those days and we lurched from one financial crisis to another. Once I ran away from a particularly difficult situation and went to stay in the country for two days. That first afternoon I lay down for a nap and had what, in my boyhood, had been a recurring nightmare. In it I would see, far away in the sky, a stone hurtling towards me at great speed, growing bigger and bigger. Just before it crushed me, I would wake in terror. But on this occasion, instead of my normal panicked response I began to breathe deeply, accepting the imminence of the enormous rock. As I breathed in and out so the rock seemed to become lighter and lighter until, like a huge balloon, it came to rest on my stomach, and in the centre of it I saw clearly the words ‘Return to London’. Out of the deep silence had come an insight, an answer to my problem. I got up, packed my bag and, refreshed and revitalised, went back to face the music.

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.

Belief

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!’