Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s Horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
These old rhymes which children used to chant contain much wisdom and practicality. If we’re aloof and prone to judging other people from a position of apparent superiority the time will come when we will get our come-uppance and have a big fall!
This is something that we also learn frequently in meditation. We endeavour to be concentrated and still, but every now and then we come a cropper. Our concentration falters, our minds go off at a tangent, our back aches … But all this can be very good for us. It reminds us that we are all beginners, that it is a long journey, and that we shall fall many times. It helps to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Over the years I have bought many books, large and small, with hard covers and blank pages. These I use partly as commonplace books, writing in longhand passages from things I am reading, but also to record when an insight, a thought, rises to the surface. I now have a large collection of these books, full of rich quotations and insights.
It is the same when we meditate. We make ourselves a tabula rasa, an empty canvas, onto which, either during the meditation or in the space afterwards, we find certain insights or images imprinting themselves on the blank page of our consciousness. But first we have to learn how to be a blank page!
Jesus famously remarked, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ We sometimes say of someone, ‘I wish never to see them again,’ with reference to something in their behaviour that has offended us. All too often it is simply a projection of the ‘shadow’ in ourselves. None of us, not even the saints, is without some form of inner darkness – be it shortness of temper, impatience, laziness, bossiness or whatever. So always we need to look inside ourselves before we rush to criticise others. It is here that the practice of meditation can enable us to be more centred and less liable to stone-throwing.
However centred we may become through the practice of meditation, we are still only beginners. Attracted by our centredness, people may be drawn to us to talk about their innermost fears, anxieties, weaknesses. Our task, when this happens, is simply to listen. Often that is all that is required. What we must avoid is the temptation to give advice. It is the totality of our listening that can often act as a mirror for the other person.
Such are the times we live in that we all seem to want instant results and are impatient if we are kept waiting. We need to learn from Nature, just by sitting in a garden, or a park, or in open country. It is easy to meet with our friends on a bench in a park rather than in a noisy restaurant. Nature follows the seasons, and perhaps the one season from which we can learn most is winter, when everything seems dead. Yet we know that, deep underground, roots are at work, the sap is slowly rising, and when the moment of Spring comes the trees will put forth fresh leaves and the flowers will blossom. As with life, so also in our practice of meditation, we learn to be patient.
The last line of R.S. Thomas’ poem Kneeling reads, ‘The meaning is in the waiting.’ When we pray or meditate we should not expect manna to fall from heaven. As T.S. Eliot says in Little Gidding, ‘Prayer is more than an order of words.’ We stand at a door. We knock. And we wait. Sometimes – often – it seems as though no one is going to open that door. Then there are days when the door opens an inch or two and we hear music as from another room. It is the sound of that music, heard however briefly, that encourages to persevere. Often without our being consciously aware, something is being worked through at a deep level within us: old problems resolved, old enmities, jealousies, lusts, angers, anxieties.
When a loved one walks out of our lives, or a beloved parent, child or friend dies, the pain is so overwhelming that it is impossible to meditate. Nor should we attempt it. We have to live with the pain, endure it, talk aloud to ourselves, go for a long walks, weeping all the while, and talking also to the loved one who has gone. Which is worse? A loved one who walks away from our relationship, or one who dies? There is no comparison. In each case something in us also dies. All we can do, especially if we want to avoid the pitfall of self-pity, is to endure the pain, talk about it, and slowly, slowly, work our way through it. There are no easy answers and the journey is different for each of us. It also takes time. The important thing always to remember is the good things we enjoyed with the person who has gone, and what we have learned from them. Then, slowly, we can begin to move on and it becomes possible once again to sit in silent meditation, drawing from the deep well of healing within each one of us.
The practice of meditation is essentially a solitary one, but meditating with others on a regular basis, perhaps once a month, is a variation that brings a different experience. When a group shares in silence there can sometimes be a very deep sense of another presence in our midst. It was when the disciples were gathered together that the Spirit descended on them like tongues of fire. Such a shared silence begets a deep connection, and out of such groups strong friendships often develop. There is a sense of being part of a community, something that may be lacking in church services.
As we enter our seventies it can be a useful practice after meditation just to sit quietly and reflect on our lives, on our journey thus far – and what may yet be in store. It is important, as we approach the end of our lives, to fill our water-pots for the journey that lies ahead, in which we shall have to learn to let go of all familiar props (including everyday worries and anxieties) and accept whatever awaits us. If there is nothing beyond death, nonetheless it is important to know and feel we have lived our lives to the full. And if there is a continuity beyond this life, then it is important to be ready for the next stage of the journey.
Sometimes, rather than following the breath or saying our mantra, it is enough to sit quietly with gently open eyes. This is best done in a garden or a place where there are trees and plants. If there is water around so much the better. At first there may be nothing but a babble of internal trivia. We can’t control it but simply have to wait until all the mental mud settles and the pool of the mind becomes clear. ‘Launch into the deep’, says one writer, ‘and you shall see.’ The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price.