Last year Zuleika Books published Older, a day by day journal of my 91st year. The reason for mentioning it is that often people say to me, ‘I am old!’ and I reply, ‘No: you are older.’ The word ‘old’ with its final ‘d’ is like a heavy door slamming, whereas the word ‘older’ more accurately reminds us that life is a journey of continual learning. As T.S. Eliot wrote (and had he been writing in prose he would also have added ‘women’) ‘Old men should be explorers still.’
The practice of meditation should not make us complacent but, rather, deepen our awareness of others and enable us to listen in depth to what is often a sub-text: they are talking about one thing but we sense there is something else they are wanting to say and if we listen, we shall eventually hear it.
This is why in the summer I sometimes invite our meditation group, which meets once a month, to sit in a circle outside in the garden, and, rather than try to shut out all the sounds, to be aware of them. We hear an aeroplane, an ambulance going by, children playing, birds singing, and we slowly become aware of the sap rising in plants and trees. We don’t try and shut all this out, but rest in a deep inner silence.
In my bedroom hang two brush and ink drawings given to me by an American-Chinese artist. The first is of a Buddhist monk with a tall staff setting off on his journey into a thick wall of mist. This is an image of our journey in meditation. Day in, month in, patiently we persevere in this cloud of unknowing. The second picture shows the same monk seated cross-legged on a precipice, looking down at a storm raging in the valley below. And so, at times when we are meditating, hidden resentments, jealousies, lusts, distractions may assail us. Our task is not to try and repress them but to look them steadily in the face and then continue our silent meditation. Meditation is about letting go, emptying ourselves so that we may be filled with silence and all the richness that arises from our unconscious.
Christians make the sign of the cross, thinking in terms of the Trinity, but this sign, this meeting of the opposites, is to be found in many cultures throughout history. We reach upwards for strength and draw it down deep into us. Having done that, we then make a horizontal line, from left to right, cutting across the vertical. And it is at the centre of this tension that we unite the opposites within us.
As Carl Jung wrote, ‘Collectively we cannot do anything; the only place where we can do anything is in ourselves.’ If we are in the place where all opposites are united, it has an inexplicable effect upon our surroundings. It is in this sense that I make the sign of the cross before meditating.
Just as we clutter our lives with many possessions so, when we meditate, distractions assail us as we go round and round this and that. Yet we have to learn how to let go and be an empty vessel that can be filled. Be still and know!
It is said that when you tell a child the name of a bird he or she no longer sees the bird but only a sparrow, a thrush, a swan. Too often we never see beyond the label. And so it is with religion, with the result that for many the word ‘God’ gets in the way of the reality that lies behind the word. It comes with too much baggage, especially all the anthropomorphic images of God as an elderly gentleman with a long beard seated on a throne! As the great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘God is no thing’.
The world around us, the world of nature is our best teacher. One has only to sit quietly in a garden in spring, in the early hours, to become aware of an intricate trajectory of invisible lines criss-crossing the garden as birds flit and whirr about their tasks, never colliding. We, too, are birds of passage and yet we are a part of the whole. We move through time, yet eternity is all about us. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:
What I know of the divine sciences and holy scripture, I learnt in the woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks. 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.
Which also is why, whenever we can, it is good to meditate out of doors, in a garden or a park, aware of all life around us learning, in the words of William Blake, to ‘see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour’.
Time and again I am moved by the sheer goodness of those who practise no religion yet whose lives are like lanterns illuminating the surrounding darkness. Perhaps the most vivid example of such goodness is that of the fire-fighters who raced into the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, at risk to their own lives, unconcerned with self, not seeking any fame or reward.
Mathew Parris, writing in The Times, recently commented on how ‘from time to time one meets people from whom goodness simply leaps. These people have something extra-ordinary. Could it be God? I ask myself. Is God the explanation of human goodness?’ The answer strikes him with absolute clarity. ‘There is no need,’ he concludes, ‘to explain human goodness. It exists. It is a positive fact. It can be seen and not only in the devout. Goodness is human, not divine.’
That such goodness is endemic in human nature was acknowledged by Pope John Paul II in his Lenten message for 2003 in which he said, ‘The inclination to give is rooted in the depths of the human heart: every person is conscious of a desire to interact with others and everyone finds fulfilment in a free gift of self to others.’
The word ‘spirituality’ seems to appear with increasing frequency in the media, as in this article from The Times:
There is a spiritual crisis all over the western world. People hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose that can transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive market. They want to be connected to some higher vision of good and find some way for their lives to contribute to that good.
Spirituality refers to that dimension which gives meaning to our lives. It would appear to be part of our make-up as human beings. Our spiritual journey is as one with our emotional and psychological journey. The practice of meditation can play an important role in clearing the ground for the growth of the spiritual, for until we can view objectively our often irrational behaviour it is difficult for the spiritual to grow.
I know that quite a few who have a regular practice of meditation, including myself, are finding it difficult to concentrate in these testing times. It all becomes a struggle. The virus has brought a hidden fear that is bound to affect us and also affect our bodies in one form or another: perhaps an all-over itching, or an increasing difficulty in sleeping. It is not surprising since we are all living in a time of rare global crisis.
And so it may help to practice the open-eyed meditation (which I describe in Finding Silence), to sit with open eyes, focused on whatever lies ahead of us: plants, trees, birds, and simply rest in the knowledge that we are not alone.
We may like to take as our mantra at such a time the words:
Thou, o Lord, art in the midst of us.
With love, James