A universe of unimaginable magnitude

Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at the fire-folk sitting in the air!
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

I remember one August night lying on my back outside on the grass with my partner as we watched the Shower of Perseus – star after star falling, swooping through the sky. We were in County Cork where we lived for a while, on the edge of a cliff.

I was fortunate in being brought up in the countryside and for most of my life I’ve had a second home far from the city lights where I could watch the stars without light pollution, diamonding the sky.

Joseph Campbell, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, describes how – on opening the National Geographic Atlas of the World – he found a two-page spread depicting our solar system and the galaxy of billions of stars: ‘What those pages opened to me, in short, was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude’.

When we meditate with our eyes closed it is all too easy to become self-involved rather than opening ourselves to the unknown; opening ourselves, in a very deep sense, to the realisation that neither we nor our planet are the centre of the universe. What quantum physics shows us is that each one of us is part of a vast design, that we are all involved.

And so sometimes it can be helpful to meditate with our eyes open, fixed on a certain spot. Where I sit to meditate I look out on a courtyard and the garden beyond. I fix my gaze on a small area while saying my mantra, or simply following the breath. Into that space may come a robin, or a young thrush, or a bumble bee, and I become aware also of the sap rising in plants and trees, their roots pushing down into the dark earth, while their leaves and branches reach up to the sky. As I breathe in, so I breathe in all of creation of which I am a small part.

Perhaps it goes back to the verse my mother used to sing to me as a small child:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are!


Where are we going?

The latest statistics show that in England, unlike America, the number of Christians is declining. Attendance at Church of England services has dropped below a million. Frank Field, MP, himself a Christian, writes that there is a real possibility that Christianity could die out in the UK in the next generation.

Yet I do not doubt that the teachings of Jesus, like those of the Buddha and of the Upanishads, will continue to enrich individual lives.

What matters less than converting to Islam, to Judaism, to Christianity or Buddhism, is setting out on one’s own journey towards the Truth. And so the closing words of Christopher Fry’s play, A Sleep of Prisoners, resonate:

Affairs are now soul-size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake.
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?

What many people are increasingly discovering is that, although we each set out alone on our inner journey, we are in the company of other pilgrims. As Herman Hesse wrote in Journey to the East:

I realised that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries, and each member, each group, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings. The knowledge passed through my mind like a ray of light and immediately reminded me of a phrase by the poet Novalis, ‘Where are we really going? Always home!’


Going on

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.