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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.’
I want to quote Etty Hillseum once again. She writes: ‘One must keep in touch with the real world, and know one’s place in it. To live fully, outwardly, and inwardly, not to ignore external reality for the sake of the inner life, or the reverse – that is the task.’
Sometimes people come to meditation and fall in love with their new-found sense of detachment. The practice can even become quite heady! But far from removing ourselves from the concerns and challenges of every day and of our neighbours we need to be reminded of the practical advice of Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, who said, ‘Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.’
I recall the remark made at the end of my last school report by our very gifted teacher of English literature, who wrote of me, ‘He has his head in the clouds; he must learn to keep his feet firmly on the ground’. These were words of sound practical wisdom.
It is all too easy, in any form of spiritual practice, to become inflated or detached, and think oneself superior to others. It is important to realise that we all travel at different speeds, that we are each of us imperfect, yet capable of learning and growing in wisdom. We have to persevere. And we have to pay attention to our feet as much as our head. In this way meditation will eventually lead us to the ground of being.