The suicide rate for young people, especially men, has risen sharply in recent times. In addition to this there is a major problem which no Government has yet begun to consider seriously, namely that as technology takes over more and more jobs, increasingly people are going to be without meaningful occupation or purpose to their lives. And so there is an urgent need to find an inner centre which, all too often, our churches no longer provide. For some, if they can afford it, therapy can help, but even simpler is the practice of silent meditation which enables one to reach the centre of one’s being and to become more aware of how each of us is meant to live our lives. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times.
I have never forgotten the first time I saw Martha Graham dance her work Errand into Maze, in which we saw her enter the labyrinth, there to meet the Minotaur. At first she was too terrified to glance at it. Then came the moment when she turned and looked it full in the face and, overcoming her fear, mounted it and rode it triumphantly out of the maze. The Monster is, of course, the beast that is in each of us, what Jung referred to as our shadow side. Until we have come to terms with it – Jung referred to this as the individuation process – the monster within will seek to wreak havoc. I think this is what lies behind the story of St Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio which was killing local people and creating havoc. It strikes me as a marvellous illustration of the need to tame our own inner wolf, just as the story of St Francis of Assisi embracing the leper is another illustration of our having to have the courage to embrace our dark side and bring it under control, harnessing its energies.
There are a variety of forms of meditation, and we each have to find the one that works for us, and stay with it, although, after years of practice, we may find ourselves changing the form. Sometimes it is enough to mentally repeat a particular phrase, over and over again during our half hour. Thus recently I found myself repeating the phrase ‘Be still’. The quiet repetition of these two words, sometimes just staying with the word ‘be’ or the word ‘still’, allowing the words to sink deeper and deeper into our sub-conscious, is a powerful stilling of the ever-active mind. It is also a good practice to mentally repeat our mantra at intervals throughout the day and whenever we wake in the night.
In the 1980s there was a period of eighteen months when I had a production in the West End of my adaptation of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, followed by another production of it on Broadway, as well as a tour of Private Lives with Joanna Lumley. I was writing an entertainment for Maureen Lipman about Joyce Grenfell, and at the same time a biography of the actor Richard Wilson, and a book about ritual. In addition I had a weekly column in Woman magazine, book reviews, articles, and teaching. I was drained and exhausted.
My partner, Hywel Jones, quietly remarked, ‘The answer is always within.’ I had neglected the practice of daily meditation. Since that time I have persevered in season and out, whether I have felt like it or not. Reaching into the well of meditation we draw up strength and renewal. Deep down in each us is all the wisdom we can ever need, but we have to work at it! As the Scottish poet Edwin Muir wrote, ‘That was the real world. I have touched it once. And now I shall know it always within.’
The mantra that I and some others use consist of three phrases: ‘God is present. God is here. God is now.’
The other day it occurred to me that the first phrase is like the moment a much-loved guest arrives and rings the doorbell. The second phrase welcomes the visitor into one’s home. And the final phrase, as one leads one’s guest into the main room of the house, results in some form of action, such as ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
The practice of meditation should always flow into daily life. We meditate not just for ourselves but for others.
The term ‘synchronicity’ was coined by Carl Jung to refer to meaningful coincidences which appear to have no causal connection. Why do certain individuals appear at key moments in our lives? Why do we pick up a book and read a passage that seems to apply immediately to a current problem. Why? It is this that leads Hamlet to say to his friend Horatio, ‘There is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’ In other words, a pattern and a purpose to our lives.
The word ‘God’ is a stumbling block for some spiritual seekers today. They may prefer to use the phrase ‘a Higher Power’; or perhaps this word ‘Providence’ is even more helpful.
There is a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson: ‘Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.’
She is not speaking literally, of course, since if we wanted to watch the dawn come up we would simply open either our front or back door. She is speaking about those times of darkness in our lives which we all experience at some point. It may be that our relationship or marriage is at breaking point, or there is a problem with our health, or we have been declared redundant and there is no sign of work on the horizon. The instances are many and, at such times, we cannot see a way forward. But, as the practice of meditation teaches us, if we persevere, light does come and then we see a way forward, or even more than one way.
Most growth comes through a time of trial, and I am reminded of this every time I look up from my laptop at some words calligraphed on canvas which hang on the wall above my desk:
‘At midnight noon is born.’
I recently came across something I had written in a notebook: ‘My restlessness is contained within a nave of silence.’ Today more than ever, there is restlessness in most people, living as we do in uncertain times; so the question becomes one of how to contain this restlessness. In my view it is only by the practice of silent meditation that we learn to confront this inner disturbance and allow it to settle, so that any mud sinks to the bottom and clear water appears. This takes practice and, as I have observed on another occasion, is very like taming a puppy. Sit! Wait! Endless practice and endless patience.
At certain points in meditation we may be led to a threshold in which we sense a presence beyond, that which we may call God or Atman or Allah. Muslims, Jews, Christians, all believe in an Ultimate Source, by whatever name they choose to call it.
If we do reach this threshold we shall have experienced the transcendental, the realisation, as Sufism teaches, that we come from God and go to God. God, however, is not anything that can be grasped by the senses, reached by the imagination, or understood by the mind. We have to be open to a higher kind of knowing. Above all God is found not ‘out there’ but within each one of us. As Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘I cannot know God unless I know myself,’ or, as Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ And so it can happen that in the deep silence of meditation we begin to experience something of that which lies beyond.
Seated in silence, becoming aware of all life around us, of how we have been blessed, even if there has been much hardship, heartache and pain, we become aware of two words: ‘Thank you.’
Sadly, and often too frequently, we take so many things for granted, whereas, at every moment, we could be saying ‘Thank you’ to life, acknowledging the many blessings that have come our way. The saddest thing is when people are so sunk in their own misery that they fail to see the riches around them. Or the unexpected kindness of strangers.
This morning, for instance, the bell rang and when I went there was a woman, perhaps in her forties, rummaging in her purse, and I thought at first she was wanting to sell me something or advertise her skills as a cleaner or gardener. But she drew out an envelope with had my name and address on it, on the other side the name of my hairdresser, and inside thirty five pounds. She had found it in the street where clearly I had dropped it. It was her second visit to check that I was the person before handing it over. I said ‘God bless you, and thank you.’ It was one of those special moments.