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A colleague has just e-mailed me, saying ‘I need to find some space within my head so that I can breathe amidst all the noise.’
It is a cry one hears increasingly in our ever more frantic world and yet the very solution to it we too often shrug away. How can sitting silently, following the breath as it comes in and goes out, or mentally repeating a word or a phrase, help us to find a space of calm, so that we are not pushed to and fro by conflicting emotions?
Like so many things in life we have to begin with a commitment. We have to reach a point where we realise that to take time out to meditate, to be silent, to be still, is essential to our well being.
All creative activity is a challenge and a testing, whether it is living out a relationship with another human being, bringing up children or creating a work of art. Time and time again we fail. But we should never despair. Each of us is a vulnerable human being, not a god, and though we may frequently stumble and fall, we do not give up. We pick ourselves up and continue. We persevere. For the dedicated actor every night is a first night, a fresh start. As Samuel Beckett says at the end of his novel Malloy ‘I can’t go on. I must go on. I will go on.’
I want to quote Etty Hillseum once again. She writes: ‘One must keep in touch with the real world, and know one’s place in it. To live fully, outwardly, and inwardly, not to ignore external reality for the sake of the inner life, or the reverse – that is the task.’
Sometimes people come to meditation and fall in love with their new-found sense of detachment. The practice can even become quite heady! But far from removing ourselves from the concerns and challenges of every day and of our neighbours we need to be reminded of the practical advice of Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, who said, ‘Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.’
I recall the remark made at the end of my last school report by our very gifted teacher of English literature, who wrote of me, ‘He has his head in the clouds; he must learn to keep his feet firmly on the ground’. These were words of sound practical wisdom.
It is all too easy, in any form of spiritual practice, to become inflated or detached, and think oneself superior to others. It is important to realise that we all travel at different speeds, that we are each of us imperfect, yet capable of learning and growing in wisdom. We have to persevere. And we have to pay attention to our feet as much as our head. In this way meditation will eventually lead us to the ground of being.
I was once sent by an American-Chinese artist with whom I had been corresponding but never met, two brush paintings which have always hung in my bedroom.
The first is of a Buddhist monk setting out, staff in hand, on a journey into a wall of mist. So, too, when we set forth into the practice of meditation we are surrounded by clouds of unknowing. Following the interior road calls for courage, curiosity and commitment. We can’t always see where we are going, nor be sure that we are getting closer!
In all traditions we are taught that when meditating, if we have a distracting thought or feeling, it is best to acknowledge it briefly then return to our original point of focus – our mantra perhaps, or following our breath. I would like, however, to add a caveat to this, inspired by reflecting on the second painting.
This shows the same Buddhist monk, now seated on the edge of a precipice looking down into the ravine below while all around him there are swirling clouds. Sometimes in meditation an emotional volcano explodes within us. If this happens I am convinced that, seated calmly, like the monk in this picture, it helps if we gaze as calmly as we can at the swirling emotions – the anger, bitterness, lust, resentment, and just look and look and not turn away. When the turbulence has subsided and the mists have cleared, it is safe for us to set off again on our journey.
A monk once asked his famous Zen teacher ‘What is the Tao?’ and the Abbot replied, ‘Walk on!’ His words remind me of a traditional Irish farewell which goes, ‘May the stars light your way and may you find the interior road. Fare well!’
Over the past year, I have been unable to get to sleep until four o’clock in the morning. A few weeks ago, therefore, I decided to book an hour’s appointment with a recommended hypnotherapist.
On arrival he gave me an introductory talk and then asked why I was there. When I told him that my insomnia was due to the death of my companion of 54 years, he said ‘I am sorry to hear that’ and then resumed his set speech, asking me to lean back and close my eyes. After 40 minutes or so I opened my eyes and said, ‘This isn’t working – I feel deluged, saturated with words, I can’t take any more!’ and I quietly left.
I could not help thinking of Brother Gregory, a Franciscan friar I knew, who was once asked by the headmaster of a big public school if he would see a ‘troubled’ boy from a wealthy family who was into drugs and had various anti-social problems. Brother Gregory saw him and about two weeks later received a letter from the headmaster saying, ‘I don’t know what you said to the boy, but he is totally transformed.’
Brother Gregory turned to me. ‘I didn’t say a single word!’ he smiled.
Clearly, however, the intensity and quality of his listening had acted as a mirror for the boy, in which he was able to see himself and articulate his own problems.
This also reminded me of an episode recorded by the distinguished psychotherapist, Anthony Storr. He tells how he once had a woman patient who asked if they might sit quietly together. He agreed. He could have read a book or looked out of the window but he chose instead to share the silence with her. At the end of fifty minutes she rose with a smile, thanked him and said, ‘That has been one of the best sessions ever!’ Clearly in that shared silence something clicked within her.
‘There is a time for words, and there is a time for silence.’ Meditation can help to activate the inner ear as well as the inner voice. It can make us better at knowing when to speak – and when to listen.
A colleague of mine recently started some Buddhist meditation classes, but was quickly put off by the smugness and complacency of the regular attenders who, having found a kind of peace for themselves, seemed oblivious to anyone else. It is the Cheshire cat syndrome, purring with self-satisfaction, and does not reflect the true spirit of Buddhism which seeks to develop compassion for all sentient beings. As the Dalai Lama has said, when we meditate we do not do so just for ourselves but for others as well.
This chimes with a passage I have just been reading in a book called Hope by Joel Rothschild, who has lived with full-blown AIDS since 1986. In it he describes the clinic to which he went when he was first diagnosed. It was, he says, like a tomb with fluorescent lighting. There was no privacy, no comfort, no security. The walls and floor were concrete, dirty and demoralising: ‘I understood first hand the reason for the emotional barrier people built up around themselves there,’ he writes.
‘I determined to befriend as many people as possible. I made an effort to greet, and compliment, and smile at everyone I could. I would find anything positive, pleasant or kind to say to the other patients and staff. Whenever possible, I would practice the smallest acts of kindness or generosity even with the sickest or most disfigured people; I struggled not to look away and to find anything positive to say to them, no matter how minor. To comment on a haircut, a new pair of shoes, the weather, it didn’t really matter, I would find something nice to say.
‘Also I listened to the other patients. Everyone was desperate to be heard. Perhaps it was a last attempt to be remembered. I listened out of genuine interest and was rewarded by hearing wisdom. I witnessed people finding new meaning in a time of danger.’
The message of true spirituality is that we are all one. The joy and the sorrow of any of us is the joy and sorrow of us all. We meditate to get a richer sense of the here and now, to live more humanely, and with greater compassion for ourselves and for others. If our practice results in our becoming detached or shutting ourselves off from others then we have gone down the wrong path!
When the Buddha sat beneath his tree, deep in meditation, he encountered feelings of anger, despair, jealousy and fear and realised that each of these is the cause of suffering in the world. When he came out of his meditation it was as though he had been asleep and was now awake. Indeed, the word Buddha means, ‘One who is Awakened’.
I thought of all this the other day when I was at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London to have a small vein in my nose cauterised. The doctor told me how the previous patient had wept and sobbed in apprehension. It was an entirely painless procedure, yet she was filled with fear in anticipation.
And so each of us at some point has to say to ourselves,
I am fearful. Why?
I am disappointed. Why?
I am embarrassed. Why?
I am angry. Why?
I am jealous. Why?
I am unhappy. Why?
In the Gospels we read how, before starting his life’s work, Jesus went into the desert for forty days and was ‘alone with the wild beasts’, and tempted by the devil. Only after he has confronted his demons do we read that ‘angels came and comforted him’.
The practice of meditation is not an escape from reality. It involves facing a deeper reality within ourselves, secure in the knowledge that the angels of healing will appear to show us the way forward.
In meditation one goes into an inner space, within oneself. It is not unlike the wardrobe in C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books which opens into another realm, that of Being itself. As Lao Tzu says, ‘In meditation go deep into the heart’.
When we begin to meditate we are setting out on the journey of a lifetime, what the actress Stephanie Cole in her autobiography, A Passionate Life, describes as ‘the long search to discover what I was born knowing, and forgot – the search for spiritual enlightenment’.
It is important to learn how to be alone. Research has shown that some development of the capacity to be alone is essential if the brain is to function at its best, and if we are to fulfil our potential. It is all too easy for us to become alienated from our own deepest needs and feelings. Maintaining contact with our own inner world is facilitated by our capacity to be alone.
By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive to what comes to the surface, whether positive or negative, we begin to understand what Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude:
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.
‘Our real journey in life is interior,’ wrote Thomas Merton. ‘It is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action.’
‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy: I were little happy if I could say how much.’
Shakespeare, as always, says it most memorably. All too often we mar a perfect silence by some banal observation. Rupert Brooke has a poem about this, called ‘The Voice’ in which he is waiting in the woods at night for his loved one to appear: ‘and there I waited breathlessly, alone’. Suddenly he hears her voice ‘profaning the solitudes’.
The spell was broken, the key denied me,
And at length your clear flat voice beside me
Mouthed cheerful clear flat platitudes.
You came and quacked beside me in the wood.
You said, ‘The view from here is very good!’
You said, ‘It’s nice to be alone a bit!’
And, ‘How the days are drawing out!’ you said.
You said, ‘The sunset’s pretty, isn’t it?’
By God! I wish – I wish that you were dead!’
Whether gazing at the immensity of the night sky, or watching the sun rise, or observing a water wagtail crossing the lawn like a clockwork toy, or looking out at the moonlight on the ocean, only silence is appropriate and, when we can share that silence with another, the experience is deepened.
Some of the most memorable Quaker Meetings for Worship that I have experienced, have been when no one speaks and a deep and deepening silence is held for sixty minutes. On such occasions one can imagine the early disciples of Jesus, after his death, gathered in an empty room, praying until suddenly the Spirit descends like tongues of fire and they all understand one another at the deepest level – beyond the need for words.
A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke;
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
All good therapists know the value of silence, but there are different kinds of silence and for some entering analysis for the first time this can be scarey. Yet certain kinds of silence can be deeply healing.
In his book, Feet of Clay, the eminent psychotherapist Anthony Storr introduces Mother Meera, an Indian guru who never speaks. Andrew Harvey, in Hidden Journey, describes his first encounter with her in 1978: ‘When she came in, she sat on a chair, saying nothing. One by one, in silence, the people in the room went up to kneel to her and let her take their heads between her hands and then look into her eyes. The silence she brought with her into the room was unlike anything I had ever experienced – deeper, full of uncanny, wounding joy.’
As Anthony Storr observes, ‘Mother Meera’s silence is the most riveting thing about her.’ She says nothing, ‘thus opening the path to self-discovery rather than proclaiming a doctrine’.
And Storr then tells the story of a client who once lay on the couch for fifty minutes without saying anything. At the end she commented that this had been the best of all their sessions. Clearly in that deep shared silence something very important had been resolved.