If we want to learn to play a musical instrument we know that this means practising daily. The same is true of any skill – it is a question of application. Jesus said, ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking backwards is worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.’ In other words we have to make a commitment and persevere. The practice of meditation is perhaps even more demanding than ploughing in that it requires us to let go of all mental processes, to set to one side those endless thoughts that buzz like bluebottles! We have to empty our minds and rest in the stillness, to be patient and simply persevere, day in and day out.
You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Move on from here. Continue your journey. Know this and then understand. Return and re-build Jerusalem.
These words from the Old Testament apply to those many occasions in life when we get stuck, and yet we realise it is time to move on. ‘Re-building Jerusalem’ is then seen as re-building our own inner citadel. It may be that we are faced with divorce, or the loss of our job, or the failure of a project on which we have set our heart. In each case it is time to move on!
‘Let down your nets into the deep!’ As always the words of Jesus carry a meaning deeper than the obvious. In order to re-connect with the inner core of our being we have to descend into our own depths. This takes courage and sometimes the need for gentle therapy. But it is in these depths that, whatever we may mean by the word ‘God’, we find an inner strength.
The darkness before dawn is a time of waiting. As Hegel wrote, ‘The owl of wisdom spreads its wings with the falling of dusk.’ A seed grows quietly in the dark depths of the soil. Change comes quietly and invisibly on the inside. We have but to persevere in our practice of silence.
‘Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man,’ wrote the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. It is only when we prefer analysis to silence, he says, that they become constant and insoluble problems. We are not meant to resolve all our contradictions but to live with them and rise above them. As the Orthodox nun Mother Maria used to say, ‘Learn to carry conflicts, don’t force solutions.’ And so, patiently, through the practice of meditation, we learn.
After meditating we become more intensely aware of the being-ness of people and of plants, animals and things. The moment we open our eyes and see a vase of flowers, a glass of water, a lit candle, we see it with the intensity of a child or an artist. We sense the essence of the person or the object.
Thomas Traherne reminds us of this:
Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord, pardon my ingratitude and pity my dullness who am not sensible to these gifts. The freedom of Thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered. Thou presented me with Thy blessings, and I was not aware. But now I give thanks for Thy inestimable favours bestowed on me.
This year I became 90 and I observe how the past several years have seen a great deal of stripping away: letting go of our home of 40 years in Wales; moving from the London flat where my partner, Hywel Jones, and I lived for some 50 years; getting rid of many items of furniture, thousands of books, scores of pictures, endless boxes of china, antiques, toys and curios.
And then, ironically, having to let go of my companion of 54 years, who died of a brain tumour.
This is not an argument to say we should have no possessions, many of which carry memories of key moments in our lives, but rather to realise that everything we have is a gift and there comes a time when the gift must move on. If we cling to things or to people we cannot move forward.
And so it is in the deep silence of meditation that we move forward when we are willing to let go and descend into the emptiness. In fact it is not emptiness — when we go deep enough we find pure being-ness. It is like those trees in autumn which, after their final blaze of colour, shed all their leaves and are revealed in their essence, trunk and branches against the sky. Still the roots go deep into the ground and the sap remains.
There is a wonderful phrase in the Psalms which I asked John Rowlands Pritchard to calligraph for me. It is simply this: ‘Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.’ St. Benedict says: ‘Listen with the ear of the heart.’
It is in the deep stillness and silence of meditation that we find our true centre. As Jung put it, ‘Find the meaning and make the meaning your goal.’
There are many kinds of bereavement, not just the loss of a loved one by death. We each die many times in a lifetime. We may experience the death of an ambition, a love or a relationship, the loss of youth and, perhaps most common of all today, the loss of one’s job. Being declared redundant is for many a loss of identity, for if I can no longer say I am a builder, a mechanic, a teacher, a postman, then who am I?
How we deal with each death will determine how we deal with our eventual departure from this life. I recall what a physiotherapist who worked at St Michael’s Hospice in Hereford once said to me. She observed how those who had learned to let go with each minor death were the ones who were able to die simply, whereas those who had resisted every change in their life and had not learned how to let go, had the hardest deaths. We have to learn how to be flexible, as in the Shaker hymn, ‘Simple Gifts’:
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be …
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come round right!
In the practice of meditation we work to find for ourselves a deep inner silence, but there is also negative silence which can happen between couples when each is so aflame with anger that neither can speak. This silence can be deeply wounding. In all relationships we have to learn how to talk things through, quietly, when difficulties or misunderstandings arise, which they will, as two temperaments are likely to clash from time to time. But a brooding, sulking silence will achieve nothing other than more psychological damage. At such times it is necessary to sit down and gently, however painfully, talk through the problem.
If the couple are in the habit of meditating then it may help them both to meditate before talking. In Finland, before each Cabinet meeting, all members have a sauna, the heat from which helps to eliminate aggression and hostilities. As Erich Fromm says, love, like life, is something we have to work at constantly.