I was once sent by an American-Chinese artist with whom I had been corresponding but never met, two brush paintings which have always hung in my bedroom.
The first is of a Buddhist monk setting out, staff in hand, on a journey into a wall of mist. So, too, when we set forth into the practice of meditation we are surrounded by clouds of unknowing. Following the interior road calls for courage, curiosity and commitment. We can’t always see where we are going, nor be sure that we are getting closer!
In all traditions we are taught that when meditating, if we have a distracting thought or feeling, it is best to acknowledge it briefly then return to our original point of focus – our mantra perhaps, or following our breath. I would like, however, to add a caveat to this, inspired by reflecting on the second painting.
This shows the same Buddhist monk, now seated on the edge of a precipice looking down into the ravine below while all around him there are swirling clouds. Sometimes in meditation an emotional volcano explodes within us. If this happens I am convinced that, seated calmly, like the monk in this picture, it helps if we gaze as calmly as we can at the swirling emotions – the anger, bitterness, lust, resentment, and just look and look and not turn away. When the turbulence has subsided and the mists have cleared, it is safe for us to set off again on our journey.
A monk once asked his famous Zen teacher ‘What is the Tao?’ and the Abbot replied, ‘Walk on!’ His words remind me of a traditional Irish farewell which goes, ‘May the stars light your way and may you find the interior road. Fare well!’