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.


Simply sitting still

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!

Be still!



Listening to the waves and the birds

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.’


Listening all day

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.


The plant as teacher

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.”


Stepping Stones

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.’


Like a rope dangling

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.


Sounds in Silence

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.