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.
In the Book of Exodus we read, ‘Behold, I send an angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Be aware of him and obey his voice.’
It is when we keep silence that we begin to hear these inner voices which act like signposts. Sometimes the voices may shake us out of our complacency, questioning our present modus vivendi.
If we are surrounded by noise, both externally and inwardly, we shall never hear our angel, and yet, as Joseph Campbell writes, ‘One has only to know and trust and the ageless guardians will appear’. We are never alone. As in the story of Tobias and the Angel, we may not always recognise our angel; but slowly, we become aware of synchronicity, as if certain events and developments are almost pre-planned. The phrase ‘and bring you to the place that I have prepared for you’, recalls Jung’s observation that each of us comes into the world with a blueprint of the person we are meant to be, and which it is our task to fulfil.
Today I just want to quote some words from a writer who has much influenced me, the Sufi master, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee:
From heart to heart love’s potency is passed. The greatness of the path always amazes me, how people are at the right place at the right time, when their heart needs to know its connection. I have come to sense this underlying web that holds us all together.
I was once sent a card with these words on it: ‘Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves – for they will have endless amusement!’
It is easy to take ourselves too seriously, and to take offence, even where none is meant. Yet if we persevere in the practice of meditation we find ourselves becoming more objective. If the criticism is valid then we take note and heed it; if we are being praised we do not let it go to our head. In other words we are no longer at the mercy of our emotions.
The word humility has a rather old-fashioned ring to it these days. It is linked, however, to the word humorous which, in turn, is linked to humus, meaning soil. As long as we have our feet firmly on the ground, we shall be able to accept criticism or praise with a certain detachment. And this, in human relationships, is crucial.
Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem, ‘O Sea, my River runs to thee!’ A similar thought is found in the Upanishads, the sacred teachings of ancient India. People follow different streams – some straight, some meandering, according to their temperament and the prevailing culture, depending on what they consider best and most appropriate to their needs; but, in the end, ‘all reach You just as rivers enter the ocean’.
If we want to learn to play a musical instrument we know that this means practising daily. The same is true of any skill – it is a question of application. Jesus said, ‘No man having put his hand to the plough and looking backwards is worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.’ In other words we have to make a commitment and persevere. The practice of meditation is perhaps even more demanding than ploughing in that it requires us to let go of all mental processes, to set to one side those endless thoughts that buzz like bluebottles! We have to empty our minds and rest in the stillness, to be patient and simply persevere, day in and day out.
You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Move on from here. Continue your journey. Know this and then understand. Return and re-build Jerusalem.
These words from the Old Testament apply to those many occasions in life when we get stuck, and yet we realise it is time to move on. ‘Re-building Jerusalem’ is then seen as re-building our own inner citadel. It may be that we are faced with divorce, or the loss of our job, or the failure of a project on which we have set our heart. In each case it is time to move on!