A universe of unimaginable magnitude

Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at the fire-folk sitting in the air!
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

I remember one August night lying on my back outside on the grass with my partner as we watched the Shower of Perseus – star after star falling, swooping through the sky. We were in County Cork where we lived for a while, on the edge of a cliff.

I was fortunate in being brought up in the countryside and for most of my life I’ve had a second home far from the city lights where I could watch the stars without light pollution, diamonding the sky.

Joseph Campbell, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, describes how – on opening the National Geographic Atlas of the World – he found a two-page spread depicting our solar system and the galaxy of billions of stars: ‘What those pages opened to me, in short, was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude’.

When we meditate with our eyes closed it is all too easy to become self-involved rather than opening ourselves to the unknown; opening ourselves, in a very deep sense, to the realisation that neither we nor our planet are the centre of the universe. What quantum physics shows us is that each one of us is part of a vast design, that we are all involved.

And so sometimes it can be helpful to meditate with our eyes open, fixed on a certain spot. Where I sit to meditate I look out on a courtyard and the garden beyond. I fix my gaze on a small area while saying my mantra, or simply following the breath. Into that space may come a robin, or a young thrush, or a bumble bee, and I become aware also of the sap rising in plants and trees, their roots pushing down into the dark earth, while their leaves and branches reach up to the sky. As I breathe in, so I breathe in all of creation of which I am a small part.

Perhaps it goes back to the verse my mother used to sing to me as a small child:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are!


Where are we going?

The latest statistics show that in England, unlike America, the number of Christians is declining. Attendance at Church of England services has dropped below a million. Frank Field, MP, himself a Christian, writes that there is a real possibility that Christianity could die out in the UK in the next generation.

Yet I do not doubt that the teachings of Jesus, like those of the Buddha and of the Upanishads, will continue to enrich individual lives.

What matters less than converting to Islam, to Judaism, to Christianity or Buddhism, is setting out on one’s own journey towards the Truth. And so the closing words of Christopher Fry’s play, A Sleep of Prisoners, resonate:

Affairs are now soul-size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake.
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

What many people are increasingly discovering is that, although we each set out alone on our inner journey, we are in the company of other pilgrims. As Herman Hesse wrote in Journey to the East:

I realised that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries, and each member, each group, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings. The knowledge passed through my mind like a ray of light and immediately reminded me of a phrase by the poet Novalis, ‘Where are we really going? Always home!’


Going on

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.


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.