Wendy Moffat, in her biography of the novelist E.M. Forster, describes how, during the First World War, Forster served in the Red Cross in Alexandria as a volunteer, and spent hundreds of hours listening to the wounded and dying. I was struck by the following sentence: ‘His stillness allowed them to open to the horror slowly.’
This led me to ponder some words from the Old Testament: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ In the Gospels we read how Martha is fussing over the pots and pans in preparation for a meal, while her sister Mary just sits listening to Jesus. Martha, understandably, begins to grumble, but Jesus comments that Mary has chosen the better part. And so one might expect the sentence from the Old Testament to read: ‘Be quiet and listen.’ But no, it specifically says – ‘Be still’!
As Karlfried Durkheim wrote: ‘A thousand secrets are hidden in simply sitting still. A person who has once learned to collect himself completely in his sitting will never again let a day pass without practising for at least half an hour, for it is this which gives complete inner renewal, especially when he has learned to concentrate exclusively on the sitting, emptied of all thoughts and images.’
To sit still and upright, even for five minutes, is not easy – especially at first. The effort to concentrate tenses the back and the neck muscles, so that we are continually distracted. But if we can resist such aches, itches, tickles, or distractions we find deep down that the physical stillness is affecting the inner stillness, and in turn the inner stillness affects the outer. By being still we come to intuit this inner wisdom deep within ourselves. A new knowledge enters.
Be still and know!
Some time ago a member of our meditation group went to stay with her sister in the Channel Islands. She had just had a major operation and sought, as she said, to regain her ‘physical, emotional and spiritual strength’. ‘I am barely able to meditate at present’, she wrote, ‘but as I walk on the huge and almost deserted beaches, where the only sounds are from the waves and the birds, I repeat, “God is here. God is now. God is forever.”’
Whenever we are recovering from shock, illness, bereavement or heartbreak, we all need such a place such as King Arthur dreams of in Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur:
The island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair, with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I may heal me of my grievous wound.
I replied that just by walking, seeing, listening, and above all being, my friend was already meditating! Once her strength fully revived she could return to the formal practice. I also pointed out that, as Buddhism teaches, we do not meditate for ourselves but for all sentient beings and so, at a time of weakness or convalescence, we should lean back on the meditations and prayers of others, allowing ourselves to be carried on their pinions, allowing Nature to do its own work of healing.
‘Meditation and the pursuit of wisdom should always issue forth in acts of compassion for others.’ These are the words of the Dalai Lama. In a subsequent e-mail my friend wrote, ‘ I go and walk by the sea and it reminds me that it is enough to listen to the waves and the birds, to watch the sea and the sky, to feel the supple strength of the saplings I hold onto as I scramble up and down the banks in the wood, to smell the damp earth and mulched leaves. It tells me that I can be still and allow things to come to me.’
Most people are taught to meditate at least once a day, preferably twice: in the morning and in the evening. For very busy folk such times set aside are essential. But there is also an important lesson to be learned from Etty Hillesum, who along with thousands of other Dutch Jews was transported from Amsterdam by the Nazis, and died at the age of 29, in Auschwitz in 1943.
Etty came to the practice of meditation quite spontaneously. Slowly, through listening inwardly, she discovered something within herself. Her faith was from the start rooted in her own immediate and personal experience. ‘Not thinking but listening to what is going on inside you,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘If you do that for a while every morning you acquire a kind of calm that illumines the whole day.’ She began to call what she found deepest and best in her by the name of ‘God’. As she was later to observe, ‘God is our greatest and most continuous inner adventure. There is really a deep well inside me and in it dwells God.’
She also went on to discover that there is more to meditation than set times. ‘I listen all day to what is within me, and even when I am with others I am able to draw strength from the most deeply hidden source in myself.’
This process of inner listening throughout the day enables us to hear the sub-text in conversations, to intuit what is un-said by another, and to respond to people’s needs at a deeper level. True meditation makes us more aware of others, deepening our compassion for all sentient beings. As the Buddha taught, a cat, a dog, a bird, even a flower, can ‘speak’ to us. We become more aware of our one-ness in nature. We become like instrumentalists in a silent orchestra.
This orchid in front of me is the subject of today’s meditation. For almost a year I tended it, wondering if new buds, and so new flowers, would ever appear. Once, when I was away, it suffered a set-back from too much exposure to heat from the sky-light. Then, nine months later, tiny buds began to appear. Week by week, I would watch, wondering whether they would grow. And now, at last, it has flowered.
Whatever angers, resentments, jealousies, distractions, negativity we may experience while meditating, each time we let go and return to a focus on the breath, or our mantra, then, over weeks, months, something mysterious begins to happen. Gently, barely discernibly, in the silence of meditation, psychological knots are loosened and those secret poisons which invade our psyches are slowly drained away. As the Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee says in his book, Catching the Threads, “Spiritual life is a process of inner transformation like seeds planted deep in the earth. The spiritual processes slowly germinate and may take years to flower into consciousness.” As with the orchid, it is not a process that can be hurried. One day, however, we wake up and see that the buds, so carefully tended, have broken into flower.
I end with some words from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now:
“The plant that you have in your home – have you ever truly looked at it? Have you allowed that familiar yet mysterious being we call ‘plant’ to teach you its secrets? Have you noticed how deeply peaceful it is? How it is surrounded by a field of stillness? The moment you become aware of a plant’s emanation of stillness and peace, that plant becomes your teacher.”
Crossing a river, stepping from one rock to another, calls for great concentration. I am reminded of photographs of Tibetan peasants balancing on a log perched high above a dangerous waterfall, while carrying a heavy burden. They have only to let their concentration waver for a moment and they are in danger. So crossing from one stone to another calls for enormous concentration, calculation and balance. The stones will be irregularly placed, and some so far apart that we will have to jump and hope we don’t slip and fall into the raging waters. We mustn’t even think about the shore on the other side, but simply focus first on one stone, then the next, and the next, until, finally, we arrive on the other shore. It is the same kind of concentration that is called for in the practice of meditation.
And it is the same when we undergo any form of art or creative practice or therapy. One step at a time, pause, recollect, then assess the next step, and so on. Reaching the other shore is not the end of the story. Once we have crossed the river, there will be jungles and deserts, as well as green and fertile plains, or high mountains to be traversed. What we have to grasp is that the journey is unending, because the real journey in life is inward. It is one of constant exploration and discovery. As Boethius, the sixth century statesman and philosopher, wrote, ‘Thou art the journey and the journey’s end.’
A mantra (a word or a phrase which is repeated over and over, silently or aloud) is a useful device with which to tame our restless minds and bring us back to the centre. Traditionally, a disciple would be given a mantra by their spiritual teacher. As the practice of meditation has spread to the West, however, many are finding their own mantra, one that usually wells up from their inner depths and declares itself.
I have described how my own mantra appeared in Finding Silence, in the meditation entitled ‘A Perfected Life’. Standing one day outside the cottage of my friend Ann Powell, whom I had just been visiting, the words suddenly appeared: God is present. God is here. God is now.
Recently, I shared this with a friend from Paris. She wrote back to say she had finally found a way to translate this into French: Dieu est. Ici. Maintenant. Then she went on to say, ‘Like a rope dangling in front of my face I grasp it to keep me upright.’ At a time of much difficulty and ill health in her life, these words in her native language help her to persevere.
Whatever our mantra, it is there to be repeated throughout the day and especially whenever we cannot sleep. The words keep us connected to the innermost depths of our being. Just as Ariadne gave Theseus a thread with which to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth so, too, our mantra enables us to find a way through the complexities of life. A devout Muslim will repeat the hundred names of God over and over: it is the same process. While we go about our daily tasks and work, the gentle repetition of our mantra is like an underground river.
The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter studied at the Russian Conservatoire under the brilliant pianist Heinrich Neuhaus. Of his teacher, Richter said, ‘ He taught me the meaning of silence. In my first term he gave me Liszt’s Piano Sonata to practise – and the essential point about this piece, which Neuhaus taught, was the sound of silence.’
Today, with the prevalence of music in restaurants, bars, hotels, with households that have the television on all day, with people scurrying along the street talking into mobile phones or listening to iPods, it is not easy to find silence, outwardly at least. We have first to find it inwardly. Those of us who suffer from tinnitus, a continuous noise in the ears, know that if we keep being conscious of it, it can drive us mad. The secret is to detach oneself from it, so that one is less aware of it. And this is where, on a simple, natural level, the practice of meditation can help one find an inner silence. There are, within each of us, vast halls of silence where we can walk and be at peace.
In hot weather a group of us who meet once a month to meditate will often choose to sit in a circle in the garden for our meditation. And into this inner silence are blended other sounds – the cooing of woodpigeons, a blackbird singing, children playing in the park, an aeroplane overhead, someone’s radio, an ambulance going by. Instead of being distractions, these are woven into the silence. There is a deep realisation that we are all part of the same pattern.
All over the world people are doing it. Students in school assemblies are doing it; mothers in ante-natal classes are doing it; financiers on Wall Street are doing it; even Ruby Wax is doing it. Suddenly it seems as though the whole world is practising meditation. The press is full of articles about the practical benefits of ‘mindfulness’. One organisation, Abacus Wealth Partners, even offers clients an exercise called ‘the money breath’ to enable them to remain calm when they see their investments drop!
At a basic level meditation exercises are known to slow down the heartbeat and deliver a wide range of health benefits. But there needs to be a health warning too. Meditation is not a panacea for all ills. There are many who have meditated for years but who are still deeply enmeshed in their neuroses, still capable of flying off the handle and behaving irrationally or in a way which is ill-considered and damaging. While the practice of meditation has great benefits, we have to work constantly at integrating our own contradictions, clearing out the weeds, and opening shutters into dark places to let in the light. Jung called this the path of individuation: becoming a whole person. It is a process that makes considerable demands and it is life-long. As Emily Dickinson expresses it in a poem, it is like building a house, brick by brick, piece by piece, until one day the scaffolding is removed and the house stands tall:
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected life,
A past of plank and nail,
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a soul.