Two paintings

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!’

A time for listening

Over the past year, I have been unable to get to sleep until four o’clock in the morning. A few weeks ago, therefore, I decided to book an hour’s appointment with a recommended hypnotherapist.

On arrival he gave me an introductory talk and then asked why I was there. When I told him that my insomnia was due to the death of my companion of 54 years, he said ‘I am sorry to hear that’ and then resumed his set speech, asking me to lean back and close my eyes. After 40 minutes or so I opened my eyes and said, ‘This isn’t working – I feel deluged, saturated with words, I can’t take any more!’ and I quietly left.

I could not help thinking of Brother Gregory, a Franciscan friar I knew, who was once asked by the headmaster of a big public school if he would see a ‘troubled’ boy from a wealthy family who was into drugs and had various anti-social problems. Brother Gregory saw him and about two weeks later received a letter from the headmaster saying, ‘I don’t know what you said to the boy, but he is totally transformed.’

Brother Gregory turned to me. ‘I didn’t say a single word!’ he smiled.
Clearly, however, the intensity and quality of his listening had acted as a mirror for the boy, in which he was able to see himself and articulate his own problems.

This also reminded me of an episode recorded by the distinguished psychotherapist, Anthony Storr. He tells how he once had a woman patient who asked if they might sit quietly together. He agreed. He could have read a book or looked out of the window but he chose instead to share the silence with her. At the end of fifty minutes she rose with a smile, thanked him and said, ‘That has been one of the best sessions ever!’ Clearly in that shared silence something clicked within her.

‘There is a time for words, and there is a time for silence.’ Meditation can help to activate the inner ear as well as the inner voice. It can make us better at knowing when to speak – and when to listen.

Cheshire cats

A colleague of mine recently started some Buddhist meditation classes, but was quickly put off by the smugness and complacency of the regular attenders who, having found a kind of peace for themselves, seemed oblivious to anyone else. It is the Cheshire cat syndrome, purring with self-satisfaction, and does not reflect the true spirit of Buddhism which seeks to develop compassion for all sentient beings. As the Dalai Lama has said, when we meditate we do not do so just for ourselves but for others as well.

This chimes with a passage I have just been reading in a book called Hope by Joel Rothschild, who has lived with full-blown AIDS since 1986. In it he describes the clinic to which he went when he was first diagnosed. It was, he says, like a tomb with fluorescent lighting. There was no privacy, no comfort, no security. The walls and floor were concrete, dirty and demoralising: ‘I understood first hand the reason for the emotional barrier people built up around themselves there,’ he writes.

‘I determined to befriend as many people as possible. I made an effort to greet, and compliment, and smile at everyone I could. I would find anything positive, pleasant or kind to say to the other patients and staff. Whenever possible, I would practice the smallest acts of kindness or generosity even with the sickest or most disfigured people; I struggled not to look away and to find anything positive to say to them, no matter how minor. To comment on a haircut, a new pair of shoes, the weather, it didn’t really matter, I would find something nice to say.

‘Also I listened to the other patients. Everyone was desperate to be heard. Perhaps it was a last attempt to be remembered. I listened out of genuine interest and was rewarded by hearing wisdom. I witnessed people finding new meaning in a time of danger.’

The message of true spirituality is that we are all one. The joy and the sorrow of any of us is the joy and sorrow of us all. We meditate to get a richer sense of the here and now, to live more humanely, and with greater compassion for ourselves and for others. If our practice results in our becoming detached or shutting ourselves off from others then we have gone down the wrong path!

Alone with the wild beasts

When the Buddha sat beneath his tree, deep in meditation, he encountered feelings of anger, despair, jealousy and fear and realised that each of these is the cause of suffering in the world. When he came out of his meditation it was as though he had been asleep and was now awake. Indeed, the word Buddha means, ‘One who is Awakened’.

I thought of all this the other day when I was at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London to have a small vein in my nose cauterised. The doctor told me how the previous patient had wept and sobbed in apprehension. It was an entirely painless procedure, yet she was filled with fear in anticipation.

And so each of us at some point has to say to ourselves,

I am fearful.                              Why?
I am disappointed.                  Why?
I am embarrassed.                  Why?
I am angry.                               Why?
I am jealous.                             Why?
I am unhappy.                         Why?

In the Gospels we read how, before starting his life’s work, Jesus went into the desert for forty days and was ‘alone with the wild beasts’, and tempted by the devil. Only after he has confronted his demons do we read that ‘angels came and comforted him’.

The practice of meditation is not an escape from reality. It involves facing a deeper reality within ourselves, secure in the knowledge that the angels of healing will appear to show us the way forward.

Inner spaces

In meditation one goes into an inner space, within oneself. It is not unlike the wardrobe in C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books which opens into another realm, that of Being itself. As Lao Tzu says, ‘In meditation go deep into the heart’.

When we begin to meditate we are setting out on the journey of a lifetime, what the actress Stephanie Cole in her autobiography, A Passionate Life, describes as ‘the long search to discover what I was born knowing, and forgot – the search for spiritual enlightenment’.

It is important to learn how to be alone. Research has shown that some development of the capacity to be alone is essential if the brain is to function at its best, and if we are to fulfil our potential. It is all too easy for us to become alienated from our own deepest needs and feelings. Maintaining contact with our own inner world is facilitated by our capacity to be alone.

By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive to what comes to the surface, whether positive or negative, we begin to understand what Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

‘Our real journey in life is interior,’ wrote Thomas Merton. ‘It is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.’

Living silence, dead silence

‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy: I were little happy if I could say how much.’

Shakespeare, as always, says it most memorably. All too often we mar a perfect silence by some banal observation. Rupert Brooke has a poem about this, called ‘The Voice’ in which he is waiting in the woods at night for his loved one to appear: ‘and there I waited breathlessly, alone’. Suddenly he hears her voice ‘profaning the solitudes’.

The spell was broken, the key denied me,
And at length your clear flat voice beside me
Mouthed cheerful clear flat platitudes.
You came and quacked beside me in the wood.
You said, ‘The view from here is very good!’
You said, ‘It’s nice to be alone a bit!’
And, ‘How the days are drawing out!’ you said.
You said, ‘The sunset’s pretty, isn’t it?’
By God! I wish – I wish that you were dead!’

Whether gazing at the immensity of the night sky, or watching the sun rise, or observing a water wagtail crossing the lawn like a clockwork toy, or looking out at the moonlight on the ocean, only silence is appropriate and, when we can share that silence with another, the experience is deepened.

Some of the most memorable Quaker Meetings for Worship that I have experienced, have been when no one speaks and a deep and deepening silence is held for sixty minutes. On such occasions one can imagine the early disciples of Jesus, after his death, gathered in an empty room, praying until suddenly the Spirit descends like tongues of fire and they all understand one another at the deepest level – beyond the need for words.

The wise old owl

A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

All good therapists know the value of silence, but there are different kinds of silence and for some entering analysis for the first time this can be scarey. Yet certain kinds of silence can be deeply healing.

In his book, Feet of Clay, the eminent psychotherapist Anthony Storr introduces Mother Meera, an Indian guru who never speaks. Andrew Harvey, in Hidden Journey, describes his first encounter with her in 1978: ‘When she came in, she sat on a chair, saying nothing. One by one, in silence, the people in the room went up to kneel to her and let her take their heads between her hands and then look into her eyes. The silence she brought with her into the room was unlike anything I had ever experienced – deeper, full of uncanny, wounding joy.’

As Anthony Storr observes, ‘Mother Meera’s silence is the most riveting thing about her.’ She says nothing, ‘thus opening the path to self-discovery rather than proclaiming a doctrine’.

And Storr then tells the story of a client who once lay on the couch for fifty minutes without saying anything. At the end she commented that this had been the best of all their sessions. Clearly in that deep shared silence something very important had been resolved.

Sewing together

In the Western world yoga tends to be taught primarily as a fitness technique; but it originally evolved as a spiritual discipline designed to integrate mind, body and spirit.

The true purpose of yoga is well illustrated by a story told to me by my Jungian analyst, Dr Franz Elkisch, to whom I went over the course of some 23 years. When he retired we continued to meet as friends.

On one these occasions he told me shyly of one of his ‘successes’. Being a Catholic he was frequently sent monks, nuns, and priests who had problems. One particular nun was the bane of her community’s life, for anything she touched seemed to fall apart! She appeared totally dislocated.

Dr Elkisch lent her a book entitled Christian Yoga, by a French Cistercian, Père Dechanet. The Sister had been born and brought up in India, and the book immediately connected with her. With the permission of her Abbess, but unknown to the rest of the community, she began to meditate each day in her cell, seated cross-legged in the lotus position.

Time went by and then one day the community’s sewing machine, on which they were dependent for their living, broke down. This nun offered to see if she could make it work. ‘Oh no!’ they all chorused, ‘You will only make it worse!’

She gently insisted, however, sat down with the machine, worked on it patiently, and in a short while got it working again!

Not only did the community’s attitude towards her change, but she knew that she had finally integrated the different parts of herself, and was no longer pulling in different directions.

And so when we sit to meditate, whether on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, we meditate with our whole self – mind, body and spirit – sewing together the different aspects of our being.

Are you sitting comfortably?

At the Buddhist Centre in Eccleston Square, London, most people gathering for the meditation sessions sit cross-legged on cushions; but for those who haven’t done yoga, or have some physical disability, there is a row of chairs.

Wherever one sits, it is important not to slouch. Correct posture while meditating is stressed in all traditions. Those who have had experience of the Alexander Technique will appreciate the instructions that one mentally gives one’s body: neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen, knees forward, ankles in. It can also help before starting to circle one’s head several times to the left, and then to the right; then to rotate the shoulders. Gently relaxing the jaw also gets rid of a great deal of tension.

Meditating is more than listening with the ear, or the mind: it is listening with the whole body. And so, with feet firmly on the ground, knees slightly apart, hands resting on the knees, with spine and head calm and erect, we prepare ourselves to enter the sound of silence – like runners poised at the start of a race, or divers ascending the board before plunging into the pool below.

Washing up – slowly

A man sits in a room meditating.
His wife enters, looking for something.
The man explodes: ‘For crying out loud, can’t you see I am trying to meditate!’

Perhaps the key word in that little scene is ‘trying’. When we try too hard we build up tension and our ego quickly gets caught up in the activity.

I shared this scene with a friend recently who told me how some years ago she had tried to find a quiet spot in the house where she could sit quietly before the rest of the family got up. She was just settling herself, ready to meditate, when her cat suddenly appeared outside the door, yowling, wanting to know what was going on inside. My friend opened the door and let in the cat, who at once leapt onto her lap, then started padding around – at which point she laughed and gave up!

Now she has returned to meditating each morning. She emailed me recently: ‘I feel SO much better. I have meditated in the past, but with such an irregular life [as well as having a family she is also a professional musician] it is always so difficult to find a quiet, regular routine. But things are easier in that respect now that my children have flown the nest.’

For people today (especially women) who have a family to look after as well as a full professional life, carving out time for a formal meditation practice is very difficult. But there are things one can do. The simple exercise of doing a task more slowly, such as washing up, setting out children’s clothes, or preparing food, is another way into the practice of mindful silence. We tend to rush through household chores, impatient to get them finished, mentally associating the word ‘chore with ‘bore’! But if we can commit ourselves wholly to the task in hand – especially the washing up! – we can glimpse the serenity and joy which are always there waiting to be discovered.