The practice of meditation is essentially a solitary one, but meditating with others on a regular basis, perhaps once a month, is a variation that brings a different experience. When a group shares in silence there can sometimes be a very deep sense of another presence in our midst. It was when the disciples were gathered together that the Spirit descended on them like tongues of fire. Such a shared silence begets a deep connection, and out of such groups strong friendships often develop. There is a sense of being part of a community, something that may be lacking in church services.
As we enter our seventies it can be a useful practice after meditation just to sit quietly and reflect on our lives, on our journey thus far – and what may yet be in store. It is important, as we approach the end of our lives, to fill our water-pots for the journey that lies ahead, in which we shall have to learn to let go of all familiar props (including everyday worries and anxieties) and accept whatever awaits us. If there is nothing beyond death, nonetheless it is important to know and feel we have lived our lives to the full. And if there is a continuity beyond this life, then it is important to be ready for the next stage of the journey.
Sometimes, rather than following the breath or saying our mantra, it is enough to sit quietly with gently open eyes. This is best done in a garden or a place where there are trees and plants. If there is water around so much the better. At first there may be nothing but a babble of internal trivia. We can’t control it but simply have to wait until all the mental mud settles and the pool of the mind becomes clear. ‘Launch into the deep’, says one writer, ‘and you shall see.’ The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price.
For some 50 years I lived in an attic flat in Belsize Park Gardens, high above the tree tops. It had a balcony and often in the summer I would sleep out. At night I would lie gazing up at the brilliance of stars, the moving pageant of clouds and the changing shapes of the moon. Sometimes very early in the morning I would be woken to hear and see a flight of birds crossing the sky like some calligraphy. .
In the West our relationship with Nature barely exists ,which is why the National Trust has launched a major scheme to encourage people to explore the countryside. How few children today get to climb trees, kick up autumn leaves , or watch hares boxing. And while lockdown has encouraged more people to take long walks, how many actually stop to sit on a bench for say fifteen minutes, keeping very still, being aware of the life around them.
Trees alone have so much to teach us as our forefathers and mothers knew in these maxims :
What is well rooted survives.
As the twig bends so the tree will grow.
Severed branches grow again. (to all who have been wounded, emotionally or physical, such words bring reassurance.)
Every tree is known by its fruit.
A rotten tree bears rotten fruitful.
Trees are full of secrets.
It is as St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, ‘ What I know of the divine sciences and holy writ I learnt in the woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks. You will learn more in the woods than in books. Trees, stones will teach you more than you can acquire from the mouth of a teacher.’
In Frances Hodgson Burnet’s The Secret Garden little Mary, the orphan, asks her guardian if she may have a piece of earth. ‘A piece of earth?’ kh repeats. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘to plant things in, to make things grow.’ He replies ‘Child, when you see a piece of earth, take it and make it come alive!’
Which is exactly what Mary, aided by Dickon and Colin, does when they discover the secret garden. They weed it, they plant it -and then what do they do? They sit cross-legged and meditate!
And this reminds me of some words of Rumi ‘When we nurture the seeds of meditation in our inner garden we begin to come alive at a deeper level than that of mere happiness. Happiness is elusive, it comes and goes. What grows and becomes evergreen in our innermost garden is contentment.’
I know that quite a few who have a regular practice of meditation, including myself, are finding it difficult to concentrate in these testing times. It all becomes a struggle. The virus has brought a hidden fear that is bound to affect us and also affect our bodies in one form or another: perhaps an all-over itching, or an increasing difficulty in sleeping. It is not surprising since we are all living in a time of rare global crisis.
And so it may help to practice the open-eyed meditation (which I describe in Finding Silence), to sit with open eyes, focused on whatever lies ahead of us: plants, trees, birds, and simply rest in the knowledge that we are not alone.
We may like to take as our mantra at such a time the words:
Thou, o Lord, art in the midst of us.
With love, James