I first heard this story in New York. A man was knocked down in an automobile accident. While waiting for the ambulance, one of the bystanders took off her coat, rolled it up and placed it under his head.
‘Are you comfortable?’ she asked.
He replied, ‘I make a good living’.
Many make a good living, but whether they have really lived is another matter. A mother may say to her son, ‘I’d be so proud if you were a doctor’ when, perhaps, the son wants to be a carpenter. So he goes off and becomes a doctor, but at the end of his life he may say, ‘I made a good living, but I’ve never lived. I could have been such a good carpenter but my family didn’t want that’.
Each one of us has our own story to tell, one life to live, one song to sing. The deep fear of many is, I think, less that of physical death than that of dying with their song unsung. Each one of us has a unique story and we cannot discover our greatest meaning unless we learn how to live it.
It is often in the silence of our meditation that we hear the first notes of our own song. Having heard it, it is up to us, in the famous words of Joseph Campbell, to ‘follow our bliss’.
In my long life, as well as successes, I have known despair, bleakness, lack of work, lack of money, betrayals and deep disappointments; and yet, at each impasse, by learning to be patient a new door has opened inviting me to make new discoveries. And so even now in old age I rejoice that I am still learning — and also unlearning! One has to shed if one is to put forth new growth. There is a pattern and a purpose that makes each life unique; this is what is meant by following one’s destiny. In the quiet practice of meditation we perceive new possibilities.
There was a period of eighteen months in my life when I was working non-stop directing, writing, teaching, running the Bleddfa Centre. At the same time I had stopped meditating. I was drained and exhausted. It was then that my partner quietly said ‘The answer is in yourself’. It brought me back to the practice of meditation and new growth.
I want once again to quote from Tony Morris’s small book, The Buddha, published by Mud Pie. In it he says:
For the Buddha, true knowledge could not be derived from second-hand explanations, divine revelation, holy writ or abstract theory. It had to be grounded in direct personal experience. Clinging to views was, he suggested, dangerous, for it could easily lead to dogmatism, and from there to dispute and discord.
I have often been called a maverick since, although a Christian, I question much in the teaching of the Churches, preferring to abide by the first two commandments left by their Founder.
Slowly, in the depths of deep meditation, we find our own spiritual growth.
I am now in my 91st year and I have been reflecting on the friends I have encountered during my life. Many have acted as signposts or guides, such as my Jungian analyst Dr Elkisch; while others have not been afraid to hold a mirror up to me, reflecting my faults or weaknesses – such friends are rare but so important.
I have been thinking also of those major loves which have profoundly changed me. These encounters are surely far from accidental, but rather, in some sense, inevitable. Why do certain people come into one’s life in this way, often when least expected? Were X and I meant to meet and come into a relationship, whether of love or of friendship? In many of our emotional and sexual encounters we are like passing ships, but there are those few relationships which become a long voyage of discovery.
And so one asks: Where does the attraction between two people come from? Is there a destiny at work here? Who can tell why some find the perfect partner and some don’t? How do they manage to be in the same place at the same time? If they had missed that moment would they have remained strangers?
Goethe says, ‘Become what you are’; which means become what your full potential is.
The pattern of our life is different for each of us and our task as we grow older is to watch the pattern unfold and help it reach its completion. Sadly, and in many cases tragically, some never realise their full potential and in old age become bitter and withdrawn. Often they have failed to realise that the many disappointments and setbacks we all encounter are, in fact, opportunities for growth, so that with George Herbert we shall be enabled to say ‘In age I bud again!’
The discovery of the inner realms within us, our potential, is a rich and at times demanding process, one that sometimes calls for a skilled guide. I was indeed fortunate when, having suffered a breakdown at the age of twenty-one, I was guided to Dr Franz Elkisch, an analyst who had been trained by Carl Jung himself. It was he who helped me to assemble the pieces of my own jigsaw until the picture of who I was meant to be emerged. Which is why I respond to this prayer:
I beseech the heavenly forces to bless and assist me to take responsibility for myself so that I can be the person who, from the beginning of creation, I was meant to be. I give thanks because it will be so now. Amen.
Joseph Campbell says in one of his discourses:
What is unknown is the fulfilment of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on earth. And you are the only one to do it . . . Get rid of the life you have planned in order to have the life that is waiting to be yours.
Spirituality has to do with the depths of the individual. It is only when we listen inwardly and attentively to the claims of the spirit that renewal comes. It would seem, therefore, that the nature of spirituality is built into the human psyche and that such holistic awareness is found potentially in every human being, whatever their religious beliefs or none. This would imply there is such a thing as secular spirituality. Time and again I am reminded of the words of the Oracle at Delphos:
O Man, look deep within yourself and thou shalt find therein a well of Truth for ever springing up!
Spirituality is a recognition that there is something other than the course of everyday events; but what is this ‘other’? Many scientists, especially distinguished physicists such as David Bohm, believe that everything in the universe affects everything else because they are all part of the unbroken whole, where everything is connected to everything else. It is what David Bohm termed the Implicate Order.
This, of course, is the central teaching of the East: that everything is one. As St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:
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.
It is only when we begin to look and listen, not only outwardly but also inwardly, that we begin to experience everything as vital and living. We discern the great in the small, the extra-ordinary in the ordinary or, as Blake put it, we ‘see the world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour’.
I recently came across a review I wrote for The Tablet of the last book by Michael Mayne, the former Dean of Westminster Abbey. In 2005 he was faced with a diagnosis of cancer of the jaw which would, he realised, test his deepest beliefs. His book, The Enduring Melody is, as Alan Bennett wrote, ‘heroic, humbling and inspiring’.
Throughout his illness his wife Alison was his constant companion and it is this that leads him to write most movingly about all committed relationships, including same-sex relationships. He quotes from William Blake: ‘We are put on earth that we may learn to bear the beams of love’. In such relationships we become, he says, the occasion for each other’s self-realisation, for ultimately it is through one another and in each other that we may be entitled at the last to say, as God in the burning bush said, ‘I am who I am.’
Today I would like to quote from a small book recently published by Mud Pie Books entitled The Buddha by Tony Morris. At one point he says:
The point of meditation is not to confine one’s practice to perfecting a particular mental technique but, rather, to bring it into every aspect of daily life, at all times of day or night. In this regard meditation becomes a sensibility as much as a practice, something we do with every breath and every step we take.
This is my own practice, to repeat mentally my mantra throughout the day and whenever I wake in the night. Gradually one becomes aware of a deep well within from which we constantly draw nourishment and healing.
Let me end with some words from Markings, the journal of Dag Hammarskjöld, a remarkable Secretary-General of the United Nations:
Now. When I have overcome my fears – of others, of myself, of the underlying darkness – at the frontier of the unheard-of. Here ends the known. But from a source beyond it, something fills my being with its possibilities – at the frontier.
When one has been declared redundant, fired from one’s job, a relationship comes to an end or a beloved partner dies, it is painful to let go and face the unknown. Will I ever hold down another job? How can I go on living when the one who meant most to me is no longer here? …
We cannot escape this sense of desolation, nor should we attempt to do so, but each day, bit by bit, learn to confront the emptiness.
The emptiness is, of course, inside us. The work or the person that made life meaningful for us is no longer there and so we are thrown back on ourselves. We all have occasions to grieve. Think of the last lines of ‘The Oven Bird’ by Robert Frost:
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
We have to trust to destiny that something new does exist around the corner. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has written, ‘When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure.’ At a time of deep loss, of seeming failure, it is time to obey the command: ‘Let down your nets into the deep.’
If we can go down into our own depths, face the pain and the emptiness and the loneliness, we shall find new growth, new possibilities which will enable us to respond to others with a deeper understanding.