Milarepa, the Tibetan sage, warns us that ‘The concentration of inward quiet induces lassitude’. This is one of the dangers in the practice of meditation, that of quietism, of becoming so passive that meditation can have as persuasive a hold as any drug. It is, in psychological terms, the call of the womb, inviting us to regress, to become a baby once more. Within such a cocoon we feel safe. Spiritually and psychologically it is a call that must be resisted.
Among alien surroundings, among people to whom we do not immediately respond, it is dangerously easy to withdraw into this inward quiet. Some people use it as a conscious technique in difficult encounters, as a way of avoiding confrontation. All such temptations must be put aside. When we are alone we may withdraw, but in the company of others we must always be present to their needs, alert to act, ready to be shaped – even disturbed – by events.
Above all we have to be ready to risk upheaval within ourselves. True meditation should result in a deepening awareness of others, a quickness to sense and respond before even a word is said. Being present to another is what the Buddha describes as compassion for all sentient beings.
We should not be distressed by lapses from grace, those days when the mind is ceaselessly restless. It may be that we are trying too hard, or we may have become inflated by what we imagine as our progress in meditation, so that a fall from grace brings us back to earth. It is like the game of Snakes and Ladders. Meditation is an ever-renewed struggle; time and again we slide to the bottom. Of course, if we concentrate on winning, the game will seem even more pointless; we do not play to win – not in this game!
Once a year perhaps, in the game of Solitaire, all the marbles disappear until only one is left in the centre. We gaze at the circular board and the single marble and rest content. It is what Zen masters call a moment of satori: a sense of having broken through, when everything seems to fall into place.
And then! It is often after such an experience that we fall most lamentably from grace. ‘It has been a splendid day,’ wrote T.H.White in The Goshawk, ‘He would go back. He was sure to. Goshawks, and this was the second time I had learned from experience, went back two places every time they went forward one. “There is no short cut,” said my good book “to the training of the Goshawk.”’
A young monk went to his Abbot and asked him for some words of spiritual comfort. The Abbot said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell. Your cell will teach you everything.’ Similarly we read of Jesus: that he rose early and went up onto a high mountain, into the wilderness, into a lonely place to pray. He went apart.
So must we when we meditate. If possible it should always be the same place. A space used regularly for meditation gathers to itself its own aura of concentration. In India there is usually a corner of the crowded living room with a curtain drawn across it, where each member of the family goes to meditate. It does not shut out the noise, but it does become a sacred space, a place apart.
‘Day after day,’ says the Bhagavad Gita, ‘let the Yogi practise the harmony of the soul, in a secret place, in deep solitude, with upright body, head and neck which rest still and do not move: with inner gaze which is not restless … then his soul is like a lamp whose light is steady, for it burns in a shelter where no winds come.’
If you stand quietly in the countryside, on a night with no moon and no stars, in pitch blackness, you begin to sense a secret activity at work. You hear the drip of moisture from twigs; the sudden shriek of a shrew as an owl silently swoops down; the barking of a fox, the rustle of a hedgehog among dead leaves. And you sense the sap rising in trees, bushes and shrubs. As Henry Vaughan, the Welsh poet, wrote, ‘There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness’.
And there is another lesson the night teaches us: that it is always followed by dawn. As a friend of mine once wrote, ‘At midnight noon is born’.
For fourteen years, at the Bleddfa Centre in Wales, I used to lead a Christmas meditation. Some 40 people would be seated on a circle of hay bales around a circle of evergreen and 100 unlit candles, and in the centre an image of a naked newborn baby.
It would begin in darkness and the one candle would be lit, and we would be aware of how its fragile flame drew us to it, like a beacon. Then the other 99 candles were lit in turn and we saw how much more powerful the light became as the flames were multiplied. And so we too, in our daily practice of silence, keep the flame burning steadily, entering the darkness and allowing it to do its own work inside us.
For several summers in Wales I observed countless small tendrils all over the lawn, which, however often they were mown, appeared to grow stronger. Finally I dug down and discovered that all across the garden, like varicose veins, there extended a network of tough, woody shoots. They all had to be ripped out if the lawn was to thrive.
Change is an uncomfortable business: it means letting go of our psychological and emotional possessions. Often we prefer to cling to our neuroses, our prejudices, our illnesses, our established patterns of behaviour and familiar social and domestic routines. It takes time, effort and sometimes courage to carry out such work and root out the problem.
To be open to change is to be willing to go on a journey of the spirit. There can be no standing still. In his novel To Be A Pilgrim, Joyce Carey wrote:
We must renew ourselves or die. We must make new worlds about us for the old does not last. Those who cling to this world must be dragged backwards into the womb which is also the grave. We are the pilgrims who must sleep every night under a new sky, for either we go forward to the new camp or the whirling earth carries us to the one behind. There is no choice but to move, forwards or backwards.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘Oh, I am old!’ and I reply, ‘No! You are older; that is different.’ The word ‘old’ with its final ‘d’ is like the thud of a door slamming: ‘I am old, I am finished’ – whereas if we think in terms of ‘I am older’ we have a sense of an ongoing journey of discovery.
We each have but one life and it is up to us to live it to the full. And so, long before we retire, we need to sit down and think: What shall I do when I have all the time in the world to myself? Will I sit in front of the television and vegetate? Or will I now be able to do some of those things I have always wanted to do: to dance, act, paint, sculpt, make pots, mentor younger people – or perhaps even care for those older than myself.
Once in a year perhaps in the game of Solitaire all the marbles disappear until only one is left in the centre. And we gaze at the circular board and the single marble and rest content. It is what Zen masters call a moment of satori: a sense of having broken through, when everything seems to fall into place.
A young monk went to his Abbot and asked him for some words of spiritual comfort. The Abbot said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell. Your cell will teach you everything’. Similarly we read of Jesus: that he rose early and went up onto a high mountain, into the wilderness, into a lonely place to pray. He went apart and so must we when we meditate.
If possible it should always be the same place. A space used regularly for meditation gathers to itself its own aura of concentration. In India there is usually a corner of the crowded living room that has a curtain drawn across it, where each member of the family goes to sit undisturbed. It does not shut out the noise but it does become a sacred space, a place apart.
‘Day after day’ says the Bhagavad Gita, ‘let the Yogi practise the harmony of the soul, in a secret place, in deep solitude, with upright body, head and neck, which rest still and do not move: with inner gaze which is not restless …then his soul is like a lamp whose light is steady, for it burns in a shelter where no winds come.’
Prayer, as T.S.Eliot reminds us in The Four Quartets, ‘is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying’. In churches and synagogues across the land we seem to be bombarded with a barrage of information, admonitions, readings, prayers, sermons. The readings are often too fast, and few clergy or rabbis are trained in the use of the voice or the microphone.
How to make space for the heart and the spirit? How to make space, as Quakers do, for silence? To what extent do the rituals and liturgy of organised religion reflect an interior reality?
The great scholar, P.D.Mehta, in his book The Heart of Religion, wrote, ’In the hands of the great ceremonialists, these rituals produced profound psychological effects. Trained to meditate, the attention of the skilled celebrant was wholly concentrated on the psycho-spiritual significance of the ritual.’
And so it is not surprising that so many turn away from our churches and synagogues. It is not that we do not require words – it is that words require space.
‘Look at the birds of the air!’ says Jesus, and we have only to look at one bird, the jay, to perceive the miracle of creation. The jay has a specialised knowledge of how best to plant oak and beech trees that still amazes even the most experienced forester. Left to themselves these trees cannot successfully reproduce themselves, for acorns and beechnuts would merely lie at the base where they had fallen, unable to grow in the shade of their own species. The jay, however, fills its beak with acorns and beechnuts and sticks them into the soil with uncanny skill. It never puts several acorns together but always at correct planting distances, often in rows.
Nature repeatedly reveals to us a deeper pattern. We have only to look up, to use our eyes and ears. As Wordsworth reminds us,
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither.