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.’
I think often of some words by Dr Martin Israel:
‘To be fully oneself is the greatest joy we can know, for at last we are free. How can we know God? Simply by living in the present moment and responding positively to those around us and the challenges they might bring. This is spirituality – no longer to be thought of as the preserve of religion. The journey into our own inner nature is always the way to God. In this lies eternal joy’.
Too often religions can become fossilised, instututionalised – and even repressive. To join a religious group can be a support and guide, but what is being realised increasingly today is that individuals can find their own way without going anywhere near a church, mosque or synagogue. An outstanding example of this is Etty Hillesum, whose story I have mentioned before, who, simply through the practice of meditation, found that there was a deep well inside her ‘and in it dwells God.’
It was on 9 March 1941 that this 27 year old Dutch Jewish student living in enemy occupied Amsterdam made the first entry in a diary that was to become one of the most remarkable documents to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust. Over the course of the next two and a half years, an insecure, chaotic and troubled young woman was transformed into someone who inspired those with whom she shared the suffering of the transit camp at Westerbrook and with whom she eventually died at Auschwitz. Through her diary and letters she continues to inspire those whose lives she has touched since.
I recommend Patrick Woodhouse’s excellent introduction to her life and work: Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed, published by Bloomsbury.
Meditating is like gazing into a pool and our busy, distracting thoughts are like the ripples disturbing the surface of the water. Slowly we become aware how, below the surface, everything is still. Once the turbulence dies down and the water becomes clear we can see into the depths.
The most vivid example of this process is one that happened when I was leading a retreat in a large country house in Suffolk. On a cold day in March a group of us were sitting, swathed in blankets, around a large ornamental pool. Our meditation was to gaze into that pool. In it the grey-blue sky was reflected, its stillness disturbed at first only by the passage of a bird reflected in the water, a crow making its way to the nearby woods. Then, beneath the surface of the mirror, among the dark roots of water lilies, we became aware of a large carp moving slowly, appearing and disappearing. At the heart of every pool the Great Fish lies waiting but we cannot command it. It appears of its own will and in the same manner disappears. When the mirror reflects nothing but the empty sky, even then, the Great Fish is there, deep beneath the surface.
We sat on, watching and waiting. We saw the mirror change colour as the sky became green and then, softly, snowflakes began to fall and we watched as each met its image in the water and was dissolved in the Great Pool, becoming one with the infinite. ‘When you fix your heart on one point,’ said the Buddha, ‘then nothing is impossible for you.’ At the heart of the Pool the Great Fish lies waiting.
Black Beauty is a famous children’s novel, and there can indeed be a primal beauty about darkness, when we sense nature at work in the earth, in rocks, rivers and oceans, and in the sky with its mysterious nocturnal activity.
Dark and light, as the Tao teaches, are an inseparable part of Nature. Perhaps, when it comes to the inner spiritual journey, rather than the image of darkness we should use phrases such as ‘the cloud of unknowing’, a fog, a mist that at times has the capacity to obscure all landmarks on our journey. We peer into the mist, seeking our way forward. Sitting in silent meditation we frequently have no idea where we are journeying to!
Often in life it can seem that we are trapped in a tunnel of darkness. It may be the blindness of grief at the failure of a relationship, or the death of someone close to us. The tunnel seems unending. But, rather than rail against the darkness, the secret is to learn what it has to teach us. Every setback is a challenge to advance. We can choose to go backwards, or to remain stuck, or to move forward, confident in the knowledge that in time the dawn will come.
One Easter Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, I attended the local Quaker Meeting for Worship. At one point I was moved to rise and say, ‘There is something dead about this meeting.’ The rest of the hour was passed in total silence but, at the end, instead of being outraged by my comment, everyone gathered round saying, ‘How did you know? Will you come back next Sunday and we will bring a picnic and explore this.’
Silence can be dead or it can be vibrant. Some of the most powerful Quaker Meetings I have attended have been those when no-one was moved to speak, when the whole hour was passed in a silence so vibrant that we all emerged from it totally energised.
But how to be truly silent? Often when we meditate we try too hard. Reflecting on this I recall something an Alexander Technique teacher once said while giving me a lesson: ‘Be focused but not intense.’ In focused silence a message may sometimes appear – like writing on a wall. Let me give a dramatic example of this.
Many years ago when I started the Hampstead Theatre in London it was a very stressful time. There were no grants in those days and we lurched from one financial crisis to another. Once I ran away from a particularly difficult situation and went to stay in the country for two days. That first afternoon I lay down for a nap and had what, in my boyhood, had been a recurring nightmare. In it I would see, far away in the sky, a stone hurtling towards me at great speed, growing bigger and bigger. Just before it crushed me, I would wake in terror. But on this occasion, instead of my normal panicked response I began to breathe deeply, accepting the imminence of the enormous rock. As I breathed in and out so the rock seemed to become lighter and lighter until, like a huge balloon, it came to rest on my stomach, and in the centre of it I saw clearly the words ‘Return to London’. Out of the deep silence had come an insight, an answer to my problem. I got up, packed my bag and, refreshed and revitalised, went back to face the music.