Are you sitting comfortably?

At the Buddhist Centre in Eccleston Square, London, most people gathering for the meditation sessions sit cross-legged on cushions; but for those who haven’t done yoga, or have some physical disability, there is a row of chairs.

Wherever one sits, it is important not to slouch. Correct posture while meditating is stressed in all traditions. Those who have had experience of the Alexander Technique will appreciate the instructions that one mentally gives one’s body: neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen, knees forward, ankles in. It can also help before starting to circle one’s head several times to the left, and then to the right; then to rotate the shoulders. Gently relaxing the jaw also gets rid of a great deal of tension.

Meditating is more than listening with the ear, or the mind: it is listening with the whole body. And so, with feet firmly on the ground, knees slightly apart, hands resting on the knees, with spine and head calm and erect, we prepare ourselves to enter the sound of silence – like runners poised at the start of a race, or divers ascending the board before plunging into the pool below.

Washing up – slowly

A man sits in a room meditating.
His wife enters, looking for something.
The man explodes: ‘For crying out loud, can’t you see I am trying to meditate!’

Perhaps the key word in that little scene is ‘trying’. When we try too hard we build up tension and our ego quickly gets caught up in the activity.

I shared this scene with a friend recently who told me how some years ago she had tried to find a quiet spot in the house where she could sit quietly before the rest of the family got up. She was just settling herself, ready to meditate, when her cat suddenly appeared outside the door, yowling, wanting to know what was going on inside. My friend opened the door and let in the cat, who at once leapt onto her lap, then started padding around – at which point she laughed and gave up!

Now she has returned to meditating each morning. She emailed me recently: ‘I feel SO much better. I have meditated in the past, but with such an irregular life [as well as having a family she is also a professional musician] it is always so difficult to find a quiet, regular routine. But things are easier in that respect now that my children have flown the nest.’

For people today (especially women) who have a family to look after as well as a full professional life, carving out time for a formal meditation practice is very difficult. But there are things one can do. The simple exercise of doing a task more slowly, such as washing up, setting out children’s clothes, or preparing food, is another way into the practice of mindful silence. We tend to rush through household chores, impatient to get them finished, mentally associating the word ‘chore with ‘bore’! But if we can commit ourselves wholly to the task in hand – especially the washing up! – we can glimpse the serenity and joy which are always there waiting to be discovered.

From a prison cell

In a recent book, The Power of Silence, Graham Turner tells the story of Ian Sutherland, sentenced to life imprisonment for a particularly horrific murder. One day in prison he picks up a book which keeps mentioning the Buddha. He begins to read more – and eventually learns that there is Buddhist monastery not far away. He gets in touch and one of the monks comes to visit him, as a result of which he begins to meditate daily.

Within a month he has stopped smoking and taking drugs, but it is a struggle trying to meditate. Silence does not exist in prison. During the day there is the constant Boom! Boom! of dance music, doors banging, keys jangling, staff shouting, bells going off when a fight breaks out … Even at two in the morning conventional silence does not exist.

Yet he perseveres, and slowly he becomes conscious of something positive happening inside him. ‘The ego is mighty,’ he says, ‘but I have a sense of what Buddhists call my inner self beginning to come to the surface, like a light shining through a window. The best way I can explain what I am trying to do in silent meditation is this: The sun, which is our inner being, our true self, is always shining, but for the moment there may be a cloud covering it. When you meditate you start to brush those clouds away. It’s like a war going on, and it’s going on even now. Every day is a battle. Sometimes the ego wins, sometimes my inner self. A few times I have almost thrown in the towel.’

With all the ups and downs Turner asks what, for him, has been the value of meditation. Sutherland replies, ‘The first thing is that I now accept that what’s happened in my life is down to me and nobody else. Before I could blame everything on other people – my mother didn’t love me enough and so on. It was always someone else’s fault. And the second thing is that I now know that there is a purpose to my life, which is to be the best possible human being I can be, and to treat everyone as I would want to be treated myself. I am facing up to things for the first time in my life. The mind stops, all thought ceases and you’re at one with God, the Great Spirit, or the Buddha.

‘It’s like the seed which lies within us. All we can do with that seed is plant it, water it, perhaps put a fence around it. For the rest, we have to rely on grace – and that is what meditation can help you find. This is the best thing I have ever done in my life.’

Casting off

Once I had a home in Ireland, a hermitage on a cliff facing the ocean. Our local Catholic priest used regularly to invite me, as an Anglican priest, to preach at his Masses. But when he gave me the latest edition of the Catholic Church’s Catechism – a thick volume, analysing every mortal and venial sin – I had to throw it away.

I cast it off because to me it represented what the Church has become not what it is meant to be. It does not truly relate to the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus was critical of the rigid, legalistic moral code of his Jewish faith. He stated that there are only two commandments: to love God wholly, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. Under the Roman Emperor Constantine, however, his teachings were hammered into a theological and binding set of rules, which gave power to the Imperial Church as an institution.

Each of the major religions has been hijacked at one point or another in its history by such power structures. It has then fallen to the mystical element to preserve the core of their founder’s teachings. Thus in Islam we have the mystical tradition of the Sufi, in Judaism that of the Kabballah, in Christianity that of the Quakers, and of individual mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Dame Julian of Norwich.

Today, I find the writings of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who is head of the Golden Sufi Centre in San Francisco, constantly inspiring. The inner journey can sometimes seem a lonely one, for, as he writes, ‘Every effort is required to walk along a path that is as narrow as the edge of a sword. Two cannot walk together, for it is the journey of the soul back to the Source.’ But he then adds, ‘From a spiritual perspective we are never alone; we are looked after more than we could ever know. The moment we turn towards Him, He takes us in His arms and provides us with everything we need.’ These words bring to mind Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff comfort me.’

All the great mystics throughout history have conveyed the same essential message. We don’t need books of catechism or centralised power structures. What we need is silence. Unless we learn to stand still in the darkness, and listen, we shall not sense these presences which surround us. The ancient words resonate, reminding us of what we have to do: Be still and know!

Time out for re-assembly

We all need what Robert Frost called ‘time out for re-assembly’, time to face our doubts, our demons, our dreams and intuitions, and time to re-charge our batteries.

Robert Frost develops this thought further in his poem, The Armful:

For every parcel I stoop down to seize,
I lose some other off my arms or knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Sometimes, in periods of being alone and reflective, when our meditation can go deep, we may realise that we have things we need to shed, that we have too many possessions, too many distractions and that we can simplify our lives. Indeed, with every decade it is valuable to take a personal inventory and say: Do I really need this? Is this what my life is about? We need to take time out, not just for re-assembly but also for re-assessment.

This happened to a man I know. He used to be the stage designer for a premier Repertory Theatre, turning out new sets every three weeks. One day, as he told me, he sat on a hillside and asked himself: Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life? And there came into his mind the image of soil. He gave up his job at the theatre, sold his car, bought himself a bicycle and became a jobbing gardener. What he earned was modest but adequate (he was lucky that he owned a small cottage where he could also grow his own vegetables, and he was able to rent one room to visiting actors or directors.) More importantly, he is among the most fulfilled and contented individuals I have ever met.

Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, imagines a youngster setting out on life’s journey, and the great pressures put upon us by our family and by society’s expectations. As we learn to resist these siren voices, we may begin to hear another voice,

which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Grand purposes abroad – and within

When I was writing my first book on meditation, Inner Journey: Outer Journey, I originally wanted to call it ‘To The Within-God’. I had learned through the practice of meditation, that whatever we mean by God, he / she / it is not to be found ‘out there’. This is what Nietzsche meant when, in 1882, he famously pronounced God dead, and it is what the great mystic and preacher, Meister Eckhart realised centuries earlier when he wrote that ‘God is no thing’. As Jesus said, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’

Perhaps, instead of the word ‘God’ we might use Mother Julian of Norwich’s phrase, ‘the ground of our being’ or, following Eastern tradition, the Tao. Ultimately it is not words or names that matter but experience. St Thomas Aquinas was busily engaged on the last and greatest of his many works, the Summa Theologica, when one day at Mass he received such a revelation that he ceased writing. He refused to reveal the content of his vision, saying only that ‘in the light of what I have seen everything I have written is like straw.’ Three months later he died.

In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials the Professor says to Lara, ‘The stars are alive, child. Did you know that? Everything out there is alive, and there are grand purposes abroad. The universe is full of intentions, you know. Everything happens for a purpose.’ Perhaps all we can acknowledge with certainty is that we are part of something vast and mysterious, and that the best way to explore it is to go within.

Working underground

Many years ago I was given a crucifix, hand-carved by Meinrad Craighead when she was a member of the Benedictine Community at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcester. The squat figure of Christ has hands and feet like those of a mole and seems to be digging its way up toward the light. I think of it as the Underground Christ. I keep it near my bed.

The mole is a remarkable creature. Small and nearly blind, it demonstrates such surprising strength and tenacity. It can move as much as ten pounds of soil upwards in twenty minutes – which is about fifty times its bodyweight, and the equivalent of a twelve stone miner moving four tons of earth in twenty minutes. And the mole has not only to dig the soil but then push it upwards towards the surface.

In the same way the task facing each of us is that of climbing upwards towards greater consciousness. It is often a painful, costly and laborious task, and like the mole we cannot see what we are doing but simply follow an innate impulse within us. All we can do is keep digging away, removing the dark layers of selfishness and self-centredness, knowing that one day we shall emerge into the light.

Waiting at the frontier

There are occasions when we are frustrated by a person or an object – when someone or something won’t do what we want them, or it, to do!

Thinking about this I recall something that Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, once said: how, when she was younger she broke quite a number of pieces of stone or marble in her frustration. ‘Now, however,’ she said to me with a smile, ‘whenever I have a problem I go to sleep for twenty or more minutes, and when I wake up the problem is usually solved.’ On other occasions she would put on some music and dance to it in her studio, and this, too, often solved the problem. In both instances she found that by letting go of the will, of the ego, the unconscious was free to find the answer for her. And this is something that the practice of meditation teaches us: not to impose our will, our ego, but to turn inward and LISTEN. As it says in the Psalms, ‘Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.’

This reminds me of something that occurred in one of my ritual workshops.

Each Saturday a group, mainly of therapists, one of whom was a Catholic nun, would meet for the day. On this particular occasion we were doing an exercise which I called The Frontier (the exercise is described in my book, Passages of the Soul: Ritual Today.) At one end of the studio a length of rope marks the frontier. Those taking part in the journey to the frontier are invited to sit, stand or lie at the other end of the studio, contemplating the journey upon which they are about to embark, realising that for each of them the frontier will represent something different. And, on arrival at the frontier, they have to decide whether to cross or not.

On this occasion, as it was autumn, I had scattered autumn leaves on the floor. When Sister Mary (not her real name) set out on her journey she picked up one of the leaves and, holding it in her hand, crawled towards the frontier. When she got there she paused for a long time and, instead of crossing, curled up embryonically, holding the leaf in her hand, and ‘went to sleep’.

The following week she told us what had happened. The frontier represented a problem she had in her community which she didn’t know how to handle. When she reached the frontier she had decided that the only way of finding an answer was to sleep on it. In the days that followed she found the answer to her dilemma and the problem was resolved.

***********************

One of my favourite images from Lao Tzu is the lesson of water. A stream, or a river, rushing onwards encounters a rock but, unlike us when we encounter an obstacle, instead of beating itself against the rock, flows round it, embracing it, and, as a result moves forward with even greater energy!

It is as Eckhart Tolle write in The Power of Now:

‘Such listening is a qualitatively different kind of waiting, one that requires your total alertness. Something could happen at any moment, and if you are not absolutely awake, absolutely still, you will miss it. In that state all your attention is in the Now.

There is none left for day-dreaming, thinking, remembering, anticipating. There is no tension in it, no fear, just alert presence. You are present with your whole Being, with every cell of your body.’

And so it is that we begin our meditation.

Breathing in… and breathing out

Following the breath as it comes in and goes out, we find it growing shallower until it is almost imperceptible. We don’t try to ‘achieve’ this as though it were a physical exercise; but, almost inevitably, if we persevere, we find our breathing growing smaller until we reach a point of deep stillness and awareness, and begin to glimpse a wisdom deep within us.

It sometimes helps to reinforce the process with a silent phrase.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests saying mentally:

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

Or again, he suggests:

Breathing in, I am aware of my body.
Breathing out, I release all the tension in my body.

Alternatively we may choose to take one of the following:

I am breathing Love in.
I am breathing Love out.

I am breathing God in.
I am breathing God out.

I am receiving.
I am giving back.

You can make up your own. It is like the sea, with the tide coming in, and then withdrawing back into the depth of the ocean. We breathe in and we breathe out…

Each conscious breath

Following the breath as it comes in and as it goes out is a practice found in almost all spiritual traditions, and is the simplest of all forms of meditation. In Japan it is called Hara. As one eminent teacher has written, ‘Hara is the seat of life, and the individual who practises it is not likely to lose his balance or his composure. He learns to anchor himself and not be distracted.’

All we have to do is to concentrate on a point about two to three inches below the navel, and breathe deeply into the lower abdomen, letting the diaphragm expand as we inhale. Feel the breath filling the depths of the belly. Then, on exhaling, we draw in the belly, letting the energy circulate through the whole of the body. On the in-breath we pause for a few seconds before letting the breath flow; and then for a few seconds we rest in the place where there is no breath, waiting for the breath to start flowing back of its own accord. We rest in the stillness of the full breath and we rest in the stillness of the no-breath.

We focus on the physical sensation of the breath coming in, pausing, flowing out, and pausing. Whatever thoughts or images distract us, we let them pass. It is as though we are lying on a hillside, gazing up into the emptiness of the sky … From time to time a flock of birds, or a butterfly or an aeroplane may pass overhead. We observe their passing and then gently bring our focus back to the emptiness of the sky.

As Thich Nhat Hanh observes,

When we focus our attention on our breath, we release everything else, including worries or fears about the future and regrets or sorrows about the past. Focusing on the breath, we notice what we’re feeling in the present moment … Real freedom only comes when we are able to release our suffering and come home … Freedom is the foundation of happiness and it is available to us with each conscious breath.