Gertrude Stein, the American writer, was not being pretentious when she wrote, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ She was trying to emphasise the essence of the rose, to make us look beyond the label. The trouble today is that we use words such as love, peace, God and so on without reflecting on their true meaning. Words have become facts, but words are also symbols pointing the way to deeper meanings. Words can also fail one. In one of his poems, Pope John Paul 11 writes:
Sometimes it happens in conversation: we stand
Facing truth, and lack the words,
Have no gesture, no sign,
And yet, we feel, no words, no gesture
Or sign would convey the whole image
That we must enter alone and face like Jacob.
Those who inculcate silent repetition and reflection on a particular text into their practice of meditation can find the underlying mystery of the words begins to penetrate their life. Those who say the Psalms daily, for example, find that certain lines resonate deeply with their experience:
As one whom his mother comforts.
My heart is ready, O my God.
Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
If we stop short at the surface meaning of the words we shall never experience them as living words, but if we truly meditate upon them we shall, in the words of John Rowlands Pritchard, begin ‘to hear the words of secret silence’.
One can spend a lot of money learning various forms of meditation and one can even pay to gain a diploma in meditation. Meditation has become a market product! I believe, however, that the teaching of meditation should be free. For those thinking they would like to learn about meditation I recommend Mindfulness by Tessa Watt, which is straightforward, simple and practical.
For many the practice begins with something so simple — sitting still and listening. If you are in a park or a garden, just sit still for even fifteen minutes and listen to the sounds around you and the silence within yourself. In our noise-bound society to achieve even this is something of a marvel! Then slowly begin to breathe in and out consciously: breathe in, pause; breathe out, pause. So simple.
Though we should take life seriously we should not take ourselves too seriously! True meditation begets humility and humility begets a sense of humour. Both words are related to humus, the soil. Keeping our feet on the ground enables us to see things objectively so that when someone savages or attacks us, instead of being angry or hitting back, we reflect on where this other person is coming from, what unresolved conflicts in them have unleashed such rage or jealousy, or even — and this is important — we have to ask ourselves what it is in us that has caused this eruption.
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’.