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.


Inner lotus

I once owned a netsuke – a Japanese ornament, about the size of a walnut, made of ivory, and traditionally worn on a leather tassle suspended from one’s belt. It opened to reveal the delicately carved figure of a Buddhist monk, seated cross-legged, holding in his hands, and contemplating, a miniature lotus flower.

The lotus is a familiar Buddhist symbol. The deeper the mud in which it grows the more lustrously it blooms, a metaphor for the way we can transform the dirt and difficulties of life to create value and beauty.

One of the great Upanishads proclaims:

In the centre of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower and within it can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there and want to know him. For the whole universe is in him and he dwells within our heart.

To find that presence within us, to discover the lotus flower, calls for endless patience and perseverance. Often our meditation may seem pointless, dry, full of distraction, our thoughts buzzing like blue-bottles but, just as it requires endless patience to train a puppy, so, too, we have to be patient with our unruly minds. Repeatedly we have to remind ourselves: Be still and know…..


The Great White Bird

One of Laurens van der Post’s most famous Bushmen stories is about the Great White Bird.

One day a young hunter stops to drink from a stream. In the water he sees the reflection of a Great White Bird. He leaps to his feet, but it has already disappeared. So he travels on and on, determined to catch up with the bird, asking everyone he meets whether they have seen it.

He keeps travelling, leaving behind his home and family and all that is most dear to him. Weeks, months, years pass. From time to time he meets someone who says they have seen the bird, but always he is too late to catch it.

And so he travels across the whole of Africa, never giving up, until he arrives, tired and old, at the foot of the highest mountain in Africa. The people who live there tell him that the Great White Bird lives at the very top of the mountain, beyond the snow line.

Then he knows that he is near his journey’s end. If only he can get to the top of the mountain he will at last see it. He starts to climb. The path becomes steeper and steeper; but he keeps on until, just below the snow line, he stumbles and falls. Realising he can go no further, he cries out, ‘Oh, Mother, I have failed!’

Then, as he lies there, he hears a voice saying, ‘Look up!’ And in the red evening sky he sees a single white feather floating down towards him. Reaching up, he catches it in his hand – and dies content.

To follow the Great White Bird of our dreams is the most demanding task life can offer – and the most rewarding. Jung called this the process of individuation, ‘by which every living thing becomes what it was destined to become from the very beginning’. Joseph Campbell talked of learning ‘to follow your bliss’. And Mary Oliver, in her powerful poem, The Journey, describes the emergence of something

which you slowly recognise 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.


By candlelight

I have recently found myself pondering the nursery rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again –
If your heels are nimble and light!

In the absence of television let alone computer games, my childhood was filled with such rhymes. They were a rich source of poetry and wisdom, as the Opies have recorded in their wonderful collection, The Language and Lore of Children.

This particular rhyme teases the imagination. First, why Babylon? What does it mean? And what might it have meant to a child when first written?

Babylon was one of the great cities of the ancient world: a thriving centre of art and literature, and a culture that gave us the story of another great journey, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It was also a city famed for its gardens, and for being the place where all the kings of Assyria were crowned. So, to a child, Babylon might have seemed a rich and exotic destination – almost like the Heavenly City itself.

The next line provides a further element of mystery – for ‘three score and ten’ is the biblical span of a human life. So, might the rhyme really be wondering: ‘How long have I got to live?’

And then the questioner asks, ‘Can I get there by candlelight?’ For centuries candles would be lit against the encroaching darkness of nightfall. So is the deeper question here: ‘Can I make it to the end before the final darkness?’

The answer comes back: ‘Yes, if your heels are nimble and light, you can, and back again.’ which suggests that, if we are flexible and don’t carry too much baggage, we might live twice as long!

In China, during August, at the Festival of Bon, people create miniature boats made from banana leaves, bearing small offerings to the gods – a coin, a flower, some incense – as well as the names of the departed, and in each a small lit candle which is then set sailing across the lake as night falls. In the dark, thousands of these small vessels float upon the water.

On our journey to Babylon, to El Dorado, to the Land of the Rising Sun, to Paradise, each of us will from time to time wake in the dark of the night thinking about what lies ahead. We may even wonder: ‘Can I get there by candlelight?’



A circle until filled contains only space, nothingness, just as the word ‘O’ has to be filled with meaning. When the actor playing Othello comes on stage saying, ‘O! O! O! O!’ he has to fill those circles with the emotion he imagines Othello experiencing in that moment. Then, too, the word ‘O’ also means, ‘There are no words to express what I feel,’ – which is perhaps why it is so often used in religious liturgies!

Jung referred to the circle as ‘the archetype of wholeness’. Tibetan Buddhists create mandalas, circular representations of the universe, as part of their meditation practice. In Zen the enso used in calligraphy, a circle painted with one brush stroke, represents the totality of the great void. When Pope Benedict sent to Giotto for an example of his work, Giotto created a perfect circle in red ink. When the messenger asked if this was the only example of his work that he was to take back to the Pope, Giotto replied, ‘it is enough and too much.’

The circle also works upon us in other ways. Sometimes when I lead a group I ask everyone at the start to stand in a circle facing outwards. Out there, I say, is the outside world from which you have come, and which for the next few hours you are going to leave behind. I ask everyone to bow to that world and then turn inwards, facing each other. The space within this circle, I tell them, is the space they are now going to explore, their own inner space. I then invite them to bow to that space and to one another. At the end of the day we reverse this, bowing inwards to acknowledge what we have drawn from the inner circle, and then turning outwards, to prepare for our return to the outside world.

After meditation, especially if one has an unsolved problem, it is interesting to draw a circle on a piece of paper and then wait, until one’s pen, pencil or brush is drawn to add something to the interior of the circle-space. Slowly an image, simple or complex, will emerge, rising from the unconscious, often providing the answer to some dilemma, or pointing a way forward.


Out with lanterns

Recently I wrote about the remarkable Etty Hillesum who died in Auschwitz in 1943. In so many ways she reminds me of the American poet, Emily Dickinson, who, like Etty, belonged to no church, but learned to follow her own inner promptings. At the height of one great religious revival meeting, when almost everyone felt impelled to step forward and ‘give themselves to Christ’, Emily held back. As she wrote in a letter at the time, ‘Christ is calling everyone here. All my companions have answered, even Vinnie, my beloved sister, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless … They have all been seeking and they believe they have found; I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?’

And so Emily stayed away, knowing that in silence and solitude she must go on seeking ‘oppositely for the Kingdom of Heaven’, so deep was her instinct to be true to her inner self, rather than conform. ‘I am out with lanterns looking for myself,’ she wrote at this period, while many of her poems carry the image of a boat adrift. Similarly Etty wrote in her diary, ‘I slip through the grey ocean and eternity like a narrow boat,’ and, a few days later, threatened by a deep depression: ‘ Once again I have been redeemed by an image – sailing like a ship through my year of days – saved me from being torn apart and cast to the winds. A sudden poetic image liberates me.’

Eventually, like Emily Dickinson, Etty Hillesum came to experience the rich voyage that awaited her:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands,
Into deep Eternity.


One woman and her dog

An elderly friend wrote to me recently telling how she awoke one night feeling so ill that she thought she would not be able to make it to the bathroom. She prayed silently for help. As she struggled to open her bedroom door she was astonished to see Tilly, her son’s spaniel, sitting outside. Tilly is a five-year-old rescue dog who suffered from being pushed too hard in the hunting field, becoming very disturbed by loud noises.

‘From that moment,’ wrote my friend, ‘Tilly did not leave my side, sleeping on the floor by my bed, and looking up constantly to see if I was all right. At about four in the morning my son came out of his room and was not too pleased to see Tilly there, my bedroom door being open. He took her back down to her bed in the hall and gave her a little talk about NEVER going upstairs. The moment he had gone back to bed Tilly returned, jumped onto my bed and placed her head on my shoulder. And so we comforted each other for the rest of the night. One doesn’t enjoy being alone when feeling so low. Tilly came and gave me more comfort than “try to sleep and you will feel better in the morning,” which are the standard words of reassurance – and often not true! What Tilly gave me was a feeling of deep, silent understanding of how I felt. So there you have it. A prayer answered. A story at bedtime for you!’

In dreams a dog usually represents human emotion. There is a vivid depiction of this in the sculpture of Tobias and the Angel which the Bleddfa Trust commissioned from the Irish sculptor Ken Thompson to mark the Millennium (unveiled by our patron Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Wales.) The statue, which stands at the end of the Barn Centre, is life size. We see the young Tobias walking with the angel who is whispering intently in his ear. At the base is Tobias’ small dog, leaping up, trying to attract attention, as though saying: ‘It is fine, young master, to talk with angels about lofty matters, but don’t forget me down here, the simple, earthy, feeling side of things!’


Mind the gap!

Travellers on the London Underground are used to the announcement: ‘Mind the gap!’ This is to alert them that between the platform edge and the entry into the train there is often a gap of eight or nine inches, going straight down to the lines below.

Mind the gap

Writers and artists spend much of their time pondering gaps – what to leave in and what to leave out – on the principle that less is almost always more. The great sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth set out to explore what would happen when they chiselled their way through wood or stone, creating holes, apertures, tunnels. In Hepworth’s work especially we can see how triumphantly the space created by the gap heightens the impact of the work.

I remember on one occasion visiting a Hepworth exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London and standing in front of one of her large works which was pierced with a winding hole. Suddenly, on the other side, I saw another person gazing from the opposite vantage point and as we looked through the tunnel our eyes met and we smiled, sharing a moment of complicity. I was reminded of the words of The Prophet, writing on Marriage, where he says, ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness.’

Those who practice meditation know the importance of space as well as silence – how, having breathed in, we rest for a few moments on the fullness of the breath, and then, after breathing out, we rest in the space of no-breath. The more we meditate the more we become aware of the space which surrounds the act of breathing and breathing out. It is a timeless space, giving us a glimpse of eternity.

One summer’s night, sleeping out on my balcony, I lay looking up at the tightly packed night sky. In one corner, a black cloud was suspended over a white cloud, behind which I could see a glimmer of light. Slowly, as the clouds moved apart, there in the gap appeared the tip of the moon. Gradually it emerged in full, a circle of white floating in the space of night. Simultaneously other clouds began to move aside and galaxies of stars were revealed. I thought of some lines of Henry Vaughan:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light.

I closed my eyes and went into a deep sleep.