The Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, only a few days before his death, said to a gathering of Buddhist and Christian monks in Sri Lanka:
We are going to have to create a new language of prayer. And this new language of prayer has to come out of something which transcends all our traditions, and comes out of the immediacy of love. We have to part now, aware of the love that unites us, the love that unites us in spite of real differences… The things that are on the surface on nothing, what is deep is the Real. We are creatures of love.
Reading these words I recall those of Dom Bede Griffiths in his ashram in India. Holding up his hand, he pointed to each finger in turn, saying, ‘This finger represents Hinduism, this Buddhism, this Christianity, this Judaism, this Islam.’ Then, pointing towards the centre of his palm, he added, ‘And it is here at the centre, that we all meet.’ In his last days increasingly repeated the phrase, ‘Go beyond! Go beyond!’
There are statues of smiling Buddhas, and the images of such contemporary Buddhist teachers as the Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche and many more, show them as laughing.
Someone once sent me a card which I have pinned up in front of me. It reads, ‘Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves – for they will have endless amusement!’
We can become too earnest about our practice of meditation; we can try too hard. I often recall the words of my Alexander teacher: ‘Be focused, but not intense!’
Lightness and ease, a sense of mischief, bubbling laughter, are among the priceless gifts of deep meditation.
As a boy we had an outdoor well. I remember turning the bucket down, down, into the water far below, then pumping the handle vigorously as the bucket rose to the surface full of icy cold water.
As we breathe in when meditating it is like drawing up the bucket from our inner depths. We have only to reach down into our innermost being and we shall find there all the wisdom we shall ever need. But whatever we draw up is not just for ourselves. When we meditate we do not do so just for ourselves, but for others. We reach down and we reach out. What we receive we give to others.
Someone wrote to me recently with these words which came to her during a meditation:
Draw deeply from the well of silence
Wherein Love may be found.
Allow it to pour over you
But also to flow through you.
To be a channel
This day and every day.
It is important to realise that, just as we experience many different kinds of weather in the outside world – from days of clear skies and warmth to blizzards, drenching rain and icy winds – so, too, there will be times when we sail through our meditation, but others when we struggle against mental winds and emotional storms. The chief thing to remember is that everything changes. I recall reading an article by a nun who had studied under a Hindu teacher. What she most learned was to be able to say: Today I feel lousy – it will pass! Today I feel wonderful – it will pass!
And so we persevere, in and out of season, in the same way that marriages go through different phases, each dry passage leading eventually to a new oasis.
Often when meditating, no matter how experienced we might be, the mind keeps wandering off and we have to call it back. I am reminded of training our cavalier spaniel who would keep darting off in different directions, and each time I would have to say ‘Heel!’ Patiently of course. Shouting does no good.
So now, whenever my mind wanders, I mentally say ‘Heel!’
But when our mind does dart off, it is important not to squash the thought: it may be quite innocuous, or it may contain some bitterness, resentment or anger that suddenly wells up. We need to look at it dispassionately, acknowledge it, and then return to our meditation. We will find that over time the bitterness or anger, or whatever, will gradually dissolve.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘Oh, I am old!’ and I reply, ‘No! You are older. That’s different.’ The word ‘old’ with its final ‘d’ is like the thud of a door slamming; whereas if we think in terms of ‘I am older’ we have the sense of an ongoing journey of discovery.
We may have pursued a job that earned us enough to support a family, but what will we do when there is no longer any need to turn up at the office? In retirement we have endless opportunities for new challenges, many of which may be without material reward, simply helping others. We have but one life and it is up to us to live it to the full.
Each of us has much to give. 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? Am I just going to sit in front of the television and vegetate?! Perhaps, as many today are discovering, we may be able to do some of those things we have always wanted to do: to dance, act, paint, sculpt, make pots, mentor younger people – or maybe even care for those older than us.
The practice of silent stillness leads to an increased awareness of ourselves and others, to a greater humility – and a quicker sense of humour!
It is all too easy to become too intense, too solemn, too precious about meditating, taking ourselves too seriously. It is essential to keep in touch with the humus or soil of reality. To be related to the humus will beget humility, and true humility ripens into humour. As we become less and less deceived about ourselves we have fewer illusions and are therefore more aware of other people as themselves and not as carriers of our psychological projections.
We become, quite simply, quite naturally, more down to earth.
The stone which the builders ignored proves, time and again, to be the stone we need. Deep meditation is one such stone. When we feel frustrated and restless, finding no satisfaction in our work or religion, our relationships dead-locked, we will still continue to do everything except this one thing: be still and do nothing. In the meantime, our true Self lies neglected, that Self which has unsuspected powers of renewal.
Time and again it seems as though nothing will change; and then one day we look up from our meditating and are aware that something has shifted within us. Certain problems have fallen away, certain attitudes or prejudices have shifted and changed. A new awareness is born.
Milarepa, the Tibetan sage, warns us that ‘The concentration of inward quiet induces lassitude’. This is one of the dangers in the practice of meditation, that of quietism, of becoming so passive that meditation can have as persuasive a hold as any drug. It is, in psychological terms, the call of the womb, inviting us to regress, to become a baby once more. Within such a cocoon we feel safe. Spiritually and psychologically it is a call that must be resisted.
Among alien surroundings, among people to whom we do not immediately respond, it is dangerously easy to withdraw into this inward quiet. Some people use it as a conscious technique in difficult encounters, as a way of avoiding confrontation. All such temptations must be put aside. When we are alone we may withdraw, but in the company of others we must always be present to their needs, alert to act, ready to be shaped – even disturbed – by events.
Above all we have to be ready to risk upheaval within ourselves. True meditation should result in a deepening awareness of others, a quickness to sense and respond before even a word is said. Being present to another is what the Buddha describes as compassion for all sentient beings.
We should not be distressed by lapses from grace, those days when the mind is ceaselessly restless. It may be that we are trying too hard, or we may have become inflated by what we imagine as our progress in meditation, so that a fall from grace brings us back to earth. It is like the game of Snakes and Ladders. Meditation is an ever-renewed struggle; time and again we slide to the bottom. Of course, if we concentrate on winning, the game will seem even more pointless; we do not play to win – not in this game!
Once a year perhaps, in the game of Solitaire, all the marbles disappear until only one is left in the centre. 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.
And then! It is often after such an experience that we fall most lamentably from grace. ‘It has been a splendid day,’ wrote T.H.White in The Goshawk, ‘He would go back. He was sure to. Goshawks, and this was the second time I had learned from experience, went back two places every time they went forward one. “There is no short cut,” said my good book “to the training of the Goshawk.”’