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.
Once I had a dream in which I was in a landscape of doors. ‘These are the doors of many possibilities,’ a voice said. ‘But only one or two will open for you. If you are patient then the opportunity will appear.’
Sometimes we find that the door we’re convinced is ours will not open or, if opened, leads only to an empty space; or else we find that one room leads to another and another until we are hopelessly lost. Sometimes we hear lilting music, laughter and voices behind a particular door and we long to enter; perhaps we even force our way in only to be thrown out, hearing the door close behind us with a resounding bang! At other doors we knock and knock, bruising our knuckles, until finally we give up in despair.
The truth is that the door which is most uniquely ours has been there all the time, only we could not see it. Although a few people seem to know from the start where they are going, most of us have to learn how to wait for our door to reveal itself. One thing, however, is certain: when we find the door that is meant for us, we shall recognise it and it will open.
The little that I know about meditation, after more than fifty years, has been forged against a backdrop of uncertainty, stress and lack of security, in the restless, hustling world of theatre. I am not an authority on meditation – if indeed such a thing is possible, for meditation is like the game of Snakes and Ladders: no sooner do we reach the top of the ladder than we fall back several places. All that any of us can do is to share our experience, and encourage one another. To that extent it may be an encouragement to others to know that, even in such a gipsy existence as mine has been, hanging onto the cliff face of what at times seems an unending climb, with rope and nerves and energy wearing thin, an inner centre can be found and held.
I may never reach the mountain top. I am still travelling in the foothills – and these blogs are notes on the way for fellow travellers.
We read in the Gospels how, when the women came to anoint the body of Jesus after his death, they were met by two angels saying, ‘ Why do you seek him here? He is not here.’
The challenge to those early followers after the sudden death of their teacher was how to live without his physical presence, and to incorporate his teachings into their lives.
The loss of anyone close, whether by death or the break-up of a relationship, is like the feeling of being left standing alone in an alien airport or railway station, cut off from our familiar surroundings. We have to learn how to let go and stand on our own feet, recognising our aloneness as an opportunity for further growth. Easier said than done! A parent or a loved one may have been dead for many years and still we have not let them go, or begun to acknowledge the new life within us waiting to break through.
All endings bring us face to face with the unknown. We say, ‘Oh, he/she is irreplaceable’ and that may be so; but such a death invariably challenges us to become more self-reliant and, often, to develop aspects of ourself that previously have been neglected. We have to accept that the landscape of our lives has changed, and will go on changing for, as Tennyson wrote in Morte d ‘Arthur, ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to new.’