My 71st birthday is looming, on bad days an ominous dark cloud heralding decline and ushering in those rather anxious and thoughtful reflections that often accompany ageing. Anxiety at the knowledge of certain mortality, remorse at the many unlived days and neglected opportunities, prayers for a quick demise out on a soccer field or a painless departure during dreamless sleep. The good days bring a growing urgency to value and more fully use the remaining years of living – or what my late father humorously called ‘cramming for finals’, the last sprint towards the finish line in the effort to make up for previously wasted time. A sense too of gratitude at having survived for so long.
Although age only measures the years of the body, I listen for sounds and signs of my mortality like a nervous tenant lying awake, peering into the darkness, listening for the sounds of an intruder. Seated at my shrine this morning, I weigh up my life like an anxious book keeper, the credits and debits, gains and losses, trying to make sense of it, the baggage of feeling, desires, hurts, triumphs and follies, the whole patchwork quilt of existence.
Convention equates age with the physical body and the chronology of clock-measured years, yet we neglect the other truer criteria. On a friend’s past birthday Sri Chinmoy commented that the celebrant’s body was 45 years old, then went on to describe the age of his vital, his mind, his heart and finally his soul – the last being ‘birthless and deathless’. Against which of these aspects of our humanity should we describe our real age?
The sense of urgency that ageing brings tells us – more meditation please, with more intensity; more adventures, while still able to backpack over a mountain, tackle distances; more courage in saying ‘yes’ to life instead of the customary ‘no’; and being inspired by holiness, not giving up on happiness and the God-quest, revisiting all the endless undone things. Remembering Michaelangelo’s words: ‘The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it’. And in our failing to challenge ourselves and discard the treacheries of comfort, another’s admonition comes – ‘A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for…’ Yes, to still dare, to sail the uncharted seas and not shrink from the great journeys and the secret tasks of our hearts.
One of the challenges of our chronological, calendar birthdays is to avoid making a pact with ageing, instead to reflect on the youthfulness of heart, mind and soul and even to launch an all-out crusade to upgrade one’s biological age. We may be 30 years of age, yet a decade sitting in front of a computer can confer the biological age of a 50 year old – or 80 years old and running marathons and scaling mountains.
Running and exercise are among the great antidotes to ageing, despite the protests of the comfort-loving body and its ever-reliable accomplice, the mind. Running especially is a kind of metaphor for life itself, the outer running and the challenges from mind and body a proving ground for the development of a resolute spirit, for self-belief and determination, for courage in tackling great challenges. Running confronts us with our limitations, then teaches us how to transcend them and to explore and go beyond. For many runners their sport prepares them well for greater things, illumining them about their strengths and frailties and teaching them how to dare, to find determination and self-belief. The great ultra-runner
Scott Jurek comments: “I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties is life”.
And Emil Zátopek – best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics – memorably said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
In his book ‘Endless Energy’ Sri Chinmoy writes: “Unless you touch something every day, it does not shine. Often I have told people to touch the furniture in their homes every day. As soon as you touch something it gets new life. If you are aware of something, immediately it shines and gets a new luminosity. If you have good health, if you touch your health every day, it gets new life.”
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed, go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
I remember years ago in the Australian outback watching the great flocks of dawn birds, thousands of them, wheeling and turning high up against the huge canvas of blue as though rejoicing at the rising sun and the gift of the new day. It was a spectacular aerial ballet, rehearsed over millions of years, their wings and plumage showing pink, then silver, then green as they banked and soared in exultation. The joy of running seems our own version of that euphoric flight, a celebration of life and that aspect of life which is movement and dynamism and freedom.
Don’t we each have too in our lives a personal standard or feeling by which we measure our living and our satisfaction? For me running is a barometer of all this, the litmus test of my risings or fallings…it keeps me at a certain level, ensures that I maintain this personal standard. In the complex landscape of a busy and multi-faceted life, running is a constant, like eating, sleeping, meditating, an essential ingredient underpinning the physical and spiritual, and without this the other things might weaken or falter. Running is often centre-stage in the battle against our ignorance – it challenges the reluctant mind, the bed-loving body, the gravitational descent into age and infirmity and ordinariness – and masters them. Running, although in the physical, exercises the soul’s further-reaching will.
I like to run early when the dawn comes, the changing apricots and pink pageantry of the sunrise sky, the city slumbering and quiet. This is the hour of the songsters, the thrushes and blackbirds – and sparrows rule the streets, squabble over scraps. In the human world only a few homeless ones are about, stirring in their damp blankets and newspaper cladding. Hunched on a park bench, sometimes they curse me – I am too privileged, too remote to be accepted.
Sri Chinmoy, running pioneer and inspirational athlete himself, has the last word: “When it is a matter of running, all the members of the family – the body, vital, mind and heart – have to work together. It is like a family party. The head of the family has invited all of the family members to come and eat. Through running, the soul wants to offer a feast to all its children. What running is doing is keeping the body, vital, mind and heart fit so that the soul can get complete happiness. The soul is happy when it sees that all it’s children have come to enjoy the feast…….” (ibid)
We were at an inter-faith event in Auckland and the master of ceremonies, an eloquent church minister evidently inspired by his own words, was invoking God’s blessings on those assembled for an interminably long time. I wondered to myself if God, too, ever suffered from impatience. Then our own group sang a few of Sri Chinmoy’s songs to the audience, a five minute performance, and then more speeches followed. Safely hidden in a third row pew, I began jotting down my own rather different invocations on the back of our printed program, listing those more deserving of divine intervention than ourselves and having a little foolish fun passing the time.
May God smile
Upon barefoot park bench sleepers,
Jaywalkers and iconoclasts,
Red light runners and misfits,
The brave and foolhardy,
On amputee buskers,
Pensioners devoid of purpose
Staring out from upstairs windows…
Smile on the cellphone-less-
On original thinkers,
The witless and the lost…
On polar explorers, renegades
The wrongly accused…
Smile upon Greenpeace workers
And those slow-dying on barstools
And the lonely and stupefied…
Look and smile too on those we loved
And never said so…
Smile too on great distances
Where only the wind blows.
One of the recurring themes in the writings and legacies of the great spiritual teachers all the way down through time is the accent they each place on the preciousness of a human incarnation, especially one in which there is some kind of spiritual awakening. One of India’s teachers spoke of only three real miracles – the rarity of a human birth in this infinitely vast cosmos with its endless possibilities of life; a human incarnation characterized by spiritual awakening and interest; and the culmination of these in finding your path and your realized teacher, the Guru.
One of the things that always interests me about meditation is the feeling of close by discoveries, a sense of being near to a sudden insight or an understanding that can make your life different. Or a veil that could part to show you something, making you happier or closer to God, a little enlightenment experience that could come suddenly like a rainbow in your day. They seem to be a gift rather than an achievement, and though they rarely come, even the promise of them lifts your heart.
As my own years multiply I find meditation to be more of an abandonment to God than anything, perhaps recognizing that after a lifetime of struggles and strivings we haven’t really got the foggiest about anything, and that we can’t really reach the loftiest heights on our own. After so many years, after all the meditation practice and self-discovering and immersion in a path, there is a humbling sense of our littleness. Yet Guru encourages this feeling of being a child – and to having a child’s innocence, purity, sweetness, simplicity, its helpless dependence on the loving parent.
In a world full of outer enchantments and endless distractions, the great light, beauty and purpose of the human soul becomes lost to us, covered over just as easily as a single cloud can hide the power of the sun. But Guru’s path brings back to us, keeps close to us the sense of our sacred purpose; and encouragement, reassurance; the promise of joy and delight; the nearness of God. Our teacher has mapped out a lovely guidebook for those embarking upon the eternal journey, an exemplar and wayfarer pointing our own way back home.
She had always been moved and deeply touched by her Teacher’s comments about the spiritual value of giving, and at some heartfelt and intuitive level felt that she really understood what this meant and how it worked in that preternatural inner world where everything connected, the giving that enabled receiving, of love deepened by desirelessness, the happiness she had known in penury, and how gratitude attracted grace and humility won power, the polarities and opposites all interwoven, the paradoxes untangled and resolved. So for many years she practiced non-attachment, made a point of giving away as much of what little was hers, especially the things she most cherished. Like the splendidly serene stone image from that roadside stall in Asia, which more than anything she had ever seen embodied the feeling and flavor of enlightenment, its utter detachment and unshakeable calm.
She had chanced upon this particular treasure at a roadside stall near Ubud, a random stop along a road of paddy fields and distant temples. An old villager sat in the sun, oblivious of everything around him, chiselling a face out of stone, a piece of cubed river sediment layered in variegated creams and yellows, the pale strata of ancient sedimentation solidified in beautiful colors. The old sculptor had fashioned a strikingly peaceful face, a Buddha, but only half of it was complete, a half-face emerging out of stone as though summoned from a mineral world, then pausing as though hesitant to venture further into our troubling human world. It was a perfect metaphor, man evolving out of stone, the unfinished portrait of a nascent God peering out from this clod of earth in calm wonderment.
When she held it in her palms, the partly open eyes watching her but withdrawn within, it comforted her, it was her own future Self. It lay at the heart of her life and summoned some intimation of her own final purpose, that freedom which was the only thing that had ever really interested her in the endless verisimilitude of life. The cold yellow stone warmed her heart, its meditative half smile soothing, hushing the mind – its composure was eloquent and breathtaking and beautiful. Only her own guru had surpassed this image – she recognized in her smiling teacher that even greater attainment that cannot be described or grasped …its orbit from the familiar earth too far away to understand.
Till one day even this she gave away, a gift to someone she really cared for. When it had gone – there was only the pale mark on her shrine where it had sat – she knew that she had gathered it even more closely into her heart and that the act of giving it away had brought it closer, its consciousness now a part of her. The carved yellow river stone smiled through her eyes, meditated in the dawn stillness, watched peacefully her own unfolding life, and her life ending. The enlightenment stone was the last thing my wife Subarata ever gave away before her passing.
Recently a group of musician-friends, some from New Zealand, gathered in Reykjavik to begin a musical tour, singing Sri Chinmoy’s songs in churches and old ruins throughout the heartland of this impressive nation………
If you were to try to paint eternity, these landscapes of Iceland would inspire you. They spread out all around you to every horizon, the rumpled splendours of the earth, vistas uncluttered or devoid entirely of man things and stretching out forever. From your palette you would choose the bright greens for the wide grassed valleys that seem endless as prairies; purples and charcoal tints for the far off hulks of mountains; grey-blues for the cold summer sea. Be sure to capture the towering sky, and tiny flecks of white for those farm cottages shrunk by distance and swallowed up in the immensity.
These are the landscapes of legend and fable and folklore and if you close your eyes, stop your thoughts, you can easily feel the breath of past millennia, the huge silences and emptiness, the brief tenure of farms, the vanished generations. Everywhere the violent genesis of the nation is evident, mountain massifs thrust up a thousand metres out of the sea, plains of buckled lava spilt from the earth’s core and spreading out like cooling fudge, escarpments of magma with their huge cliff top prows of tumbling scree, the bared raw crust of the earth.
Scraps of history litter the plains and linger – an empty stone cottage crumbling back into the ground, its windows like gaping eye sockets; the rib cage of an ancient wooden boat, half submerged in a mountain lake; an overgrown path leading to a destination that has vanished, only a hearth of blackened stones; that old wooden wheel. In tiny graveyards of twos or tens the dead who lived and struggled here lie beneath their granite memorials and unkempt summer grasses. Their cairns of stone lie scattered in the flowering meadows.
Lapwings and curlews call out from the great silence – you listen, but there is nothing else. Twos and threes of sheep dot the treeless Nordic prairies. If you wander out here alone, leave your toys behind, your cellphone, your i-pod, the useless distractions that fill the empty gaps or lonely spaces of your life, eternity will examine you – who are you, why are you here? This canvas of eternity reminds you of the brevity and inconsequence of your own short life, asks of you the timeless question – what is it that can make your life meaningful, give you intent and purpose before you vanish like the alpine flowers?
These are the landscapes that surround us, twelve of us from eight countries who have come together to sing Guru’s songs. In the tiny churches of small towns, in rural settings and coastal settlements with unpronounceable names and in lovely valleys, our audiences sometimes numbering as few as five or six – though in the great cathedral in Reykjavik, many more – we are filling the brimming silence with the beauty of this music, summoning our soulfulness, honing our oneness of voice, listening intently to most deeply feel the heart-essence of each song. Offering too to the inner world, the Mother Earth bank that is a repository of all this, the sense of something enduring and beautiful that will gather like lovely seeds in the soul of the nation, flower in some tomorrow.
Friends of the Icelandic disciples seem everywhere – our host’s kin materialize in country towns to feed us, appear in halls of power and as welcoming pastors of churches; another’s parents offer us the family’s summer home out in the west, a wood panelled cottage surrounded by lurching hills, volcanic cones, groves of trees. All night the wind purrs in the tops of aspens and pines.
We are dopey with travel, long hours crossing the hundreds of kilometres of valleys and slow hills, the long flowing nape of earth that seems smoothed by a cosmic hand. Sky sculptings too that mesmerize, high cirrus and columns of cumulus shepherded by evening winds, and the light play of the horizoning sun; and mottled clouds sagging with rain. Their bellies droop like grey pillows.
On my departing flight to New York, the seat cushions of the plane are all imprinted with a charming Icelandic lullaby:
‘Bi, bi og blaka, alftirnar kvaka…………’
‘Bye bye and hushabye,
Can you see the swans fly?
Now half asleep in bed I lie
Awake with half an eye.
Heyho and welladay,
Over hills and far away…………’
Up and away, over the hills and faraways of this lovely country, yes half asleep, half an eye, as our jet leans west over the Arctic Circle before rejoining and inching down the seabord of continental North America.
But words or photos cannot capture the essence or spirit of this place – they are only a few lovely feathers of the majestic peacock, or a handful of pebbles gathered from a calm and tranquil shore.
Footnote: You step out into the huge distances, this conspiracy of earth and sky that surrounds you like a vast stage, feeling the relief – or perhaps the unbearableness – of being alone with only yourself, the unburdening humbleness or the troubling emptiness against which you can measure and consider your own brief millisecond of living.
You are the only living thing, the first human, an Adam alone in this endless garden landscape, the lead and only actor in a great amphitheatre of nature – but there are no lines, no plot, only the attentive stillness, a void empty of intent or purpose. The huge distances diminish you, the great silences swallow up the follies in your mind, disentangle you from the fictions and myths of who you thought you were. Everything is pared away.
Stripped of everything, you are only pure consciousness, a ragged scarecrow in an empty field. Bereft of all your props and distractions you peer into the empty silent mirror of eternity to see yourself, unmasked and elemental, to become as nothing and to see what remains.
On a distant hillside a Lilliputian farmhouse catches the sun – its single front window stares out into the nothingness, a gaping Oh! of wonderment. You go to bed at midnight in daylight – you wake at 5 am to the same daylight, the patient empty hills, the pale sun still over there on the earth’s rim in this nightless Arctic summer.
Iceland grows its poets and philosophers out of these sweeping landscapes, the darkless summers, lightless winters, the naked earth – its austere beauty of fire and stone – the rich and fertile spawning grounds of emptiness.
Holidays are coming, and soon our centre family will vanish away to relatives in hometowns, to gatherings down-country in small coastal villages, settlements where an uncle owns a seaside bach, an odd ritual here like some seasonal homing instinct, a migratory impulse honed through childhoods of summers.
In these waning months of the year the parklands near my home gather around them like a cloak their springtime garb of mists and resurgent greens and slow veils of rain. At dawn when I like to wander here, night drains out of the sky in retreat and the vanquishing sun – its orange orb like a great bloodied eye – climbs up out of the distant sea in pursuit, the colors of its wounds infusing the heavens with yellows and apricots and veins of red.
I often feel as though I have stumbled into an eighteenth century English landscape, one of indistinct oaks and rolling greenscapes smudged with mist and filled with birdsong, the competing songsters so clear and polyphonic, pristine liquid sounds like water droplets in a dark, deep cave. Ridgeline trees are black silhouettes above the low-lying fog – the bare fingers of their branches seem like inverted capillaries feeding off the heavens. And the sky! It fills most of the visible world, overarching and startlingly blue, daubed with shifting cloud colors, flaring golds, blushings of red and pink, the quick changing pageantry of dawn.
Long ago, on a sunny day Sri Chinmoy walked the perimeter road of this green domain, jogged a little in his blue tracksuit. Today at dawn, retracing his footsteps, I have two books in my pocket, an ambulatory half hour of reading – one is Guru’s “Yoga and the Spiritual Life”, the other Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”, the existential work about Sisyphus, the Greek anti-hero condemned by the Gods to endlessly push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down each time he reached the top. “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” writes Camus.
Camus’ words were all about happiness – how to find it in a world wherein we struggle, suffer and die, without finding any real meaning in our existence or without someone to explain this condition to us. But ‘one does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness. ….Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth’, he writes.
And of Sisyphus: “He knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that silent pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death..… Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
But I like Guru’s greater insights much more, and in ‘Yoga and the Spiritual Life’ my kind and wise teacher reminds me of much deeper truths about ourselves:
“God is in you, God looks exactly like you. Right now, you are God veiled. You have put on a mask, but I see through the mask. In the future, you will be the God unveiled. You will take off the mask and we shall see you as God manifested, the open God.”
“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance..” Old Japanese proverb
My mid-60’s birthday is upon me, and with it comes that rather thoughtful and introspective feeling that often accompanies these milestone occasions. Although age only measures the years of the body, I listen for sounds and signs of my mortality like an anxious tenant lying awake, peering into the darkness, listening for the sounds of an intruder. Seated at my shrine this morning, rain whispering on the fibrolite roof, I weigh up my life like an anxious book keeper, the credits and debits, gains and losses, trying to make sense of it, the baggage of feeling, desires, hurts, triumphs and follies, the whole patchwork quilt of existence, everything pigeon-holed away in the nooks and crannies of memory – now the mind seeking comprehension and clarity like the long throw of headlights on a night road, illumining a tiny part of the dark world in that instant you are there. Thoughts fluttering around like blind bats finding haven and seeking to roost in their dark hidden caves…
There is a sense of greater urgency now about certain things – meditation, more of it; adventures, while still able to backpack over a mountain, tackle distances and wade freezing rivers; my spiritual disciplines, deepening myself, being inspired by holiness; manifestation, all the endless undone things. Remembering Michaelangelo’s words: ‘The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it’. And in our failing to challenge ourselves, to discard the treacheries of comfort, to set goals, another’s admonition comes – ‘A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for…’ Yes, to still dare, to sail the uncharted seas and not shrink from the great journeys and the secret tasks of our souls.
Guru stares at me from my video screen, Thailand in 2006, 3:35am in his hotel room. Nine years on and 6:30am in Wellington and I stare back with a solemnity and earnestness born of a soul’s day piety, sensing valediction, finality. This is a farewell, a summation – among the many pigeon holes I name this “Guru’s Final Teachings”. Every early morning while we slept, for weeks and weeks, Guru sat in his hotel room chair in the still hours, looking at the camera –there is an absolute simplicity here, life stripped of all distraction and pared away to this silent communion, this naked truth.
We sit in our chairs and just look at each other, but this simplest of moments seems a last beatitude, the transmission of spiritual knowledge, of Truth and Reality itself. I am reminded of Sri Krishna’s childhood tuition, his Guru Sandipani Muni looking at Krishna and transferring to him –across a Bollywoodish beam of light, in my video – all knowing and knowledge; reminded of the Buddha’s flower sermon – the imparting of wordless teachings in that silent meditation, no doubt to the disappointment of those anticipating lofty utterances. I remember one of Guru’s poems that like so many, reminds us of the same eternal teaching:
Since our life is made of
Only a few days and nights
We must love and serve God
To the greatest extent of
Guru looks at you now from this terminus of all of his human incarnations, the final months after thousands of years, millenia of memories, sees everything, and you know that this immortal video recording from 2006 is a final gift, this wordless looking where he draws you into himself, deepens the bonds – stay with me, be with me, there is nothing else. Conveying knowledge, compassion, love and the great force of absolute truth in this complicity of silence.
Birthdays can be uncertain occasions and I think my poor soul remains in hiding when it feels I am undeserving. But I look at Guru on my video screen and pray for steadfastness and devotion, or what measure of this I can find and keep.
And I can console myself, my very little life, with a line or two from the mystic poet Hafiz:
“Conventional piety brings its reward
A mansion in Paradise;
But for a ragamuffin sinner like me,
A seat in the tavern is enough.”
After a lifetime of travel and lifelong encounters with many great human beings – our path took us to so many places, to encounters with so many people – it is a truism for me to say that Sri Chinmoy was, by a very great distance, the greatest person I have ever met. Even after my own 30 years of examining him he was always far over the horizons of my comprehension – and what I could comprehend was always wonderful and breathtaking.
I often marvelled at those hundreds of times that he walked alone on to a concert stage before audiences of up to 18,000 people, folded his hands together over his heart and simply by standing there, through the force of his love, the power of his meditation, his abandonment to God, bring a hushed, pin-drop silence to the entire auditorium. His tranquillity and absolute poise and the great achievement of his realization were felt by everyone. Then I would marvel at how he would sit in front of an unfamiliar piano or pipe organ with absolutely no idea of what he would play, no sheet music, no keyboard training, no mind or anxiety, entirely trusting in the higher worlds of music to pass through his fingers, the same surrender to God.
Sri Chinmoy’s personal example in this area of his life – and which he demonstrated in everything, everywhere – taught us much. He wanted us to understand our own capacity to uplift and serve the world, to live cocooned in God-trust, our confidence and power resulting from our growing oneness with him and God.
Once I was very touched by a small incident that occurred prior to a Peace Concert in Auckland. I went to Sri Chinmoy’s dressing room backstage to let him know the hall was full and all was ready – there were 3,000 people waiting expectantly in the auditorium. I imagined Guru would have at least a little of our human apprehension or pre-concert nerves, but instead he was looking at me with an absolute attentiveness, so calmly and so lovingly, and then asked me how I was! “Are you alright, Jogyata?” he asked, and looked deeply at me, wanting me to tell him of anything troubling me. He was about to walk out in front of a packed concert hall and play for two hours, but his only concern was in my welfare. I was amazed and tears came to my eyes.
“Over the years” Sri Chinmoy once said, “ I have been to a number of countries that follow the teachings of the Lord Buddha, but here in Myanmar I feel that Lord Buddha has a very, very special eye of compassion and a very, very special heart of universal love. Myanmar I feel has a most special place in the heart of Lord Buddha. The depth of silence, the beauty of simplicity and the hunger for life’s perfection I see and I feel in the aspiring and self-giving soul of Myanmar, blessed child of the world liberator, Lord Buddha.”
In January of this year, a number of us again met up in Myanmar for two memorable weeks, our third visit. I sat in the departure lounge of Bangkok airport en route to Yangon and watched two travellers playing chess. One of the players was playing while blindfolded. Her eyes – I imagined them to be green or blue, a sea colour – were hidden behind a red scarf. She was memorizing her opponents every move, her face looking away and sideways in concentration, seeing each piece on the board in her mind as each new position was relayed to her. Sometimes her hands touched the chess pieces very lightly as though reading Braille or caressing the face of a child. Someone said she was a Russian prodigy, that even though sightless she would win.
We arrived in Yangon in the midday, took a dilapidated taxi through streets blue with the exhaust fumes of motorbikes and old cars – although winter it was hot and dry like a pedigree New Zealand summer. Later several of us caught a taxi out to a popular lake and watched the sun setting. There were lots of monks about, fresh coconut stalls, a dusty market place, tourists draped with cameras, fields full of peanut plants and plastic bags. We stood on a wooden pier and watched the sun sinking into the horizon, a red ball in the evening haze that coloured the fields with copper shadows and flared across the sheets of bright water.
I sat in the peaceful dusk and read a little from Krishna’s final teachings, the Uddhava Gita. Krishna was saying ‘All things that appear as multiplicity, all are as unreal as the objects seen by the dreamer in a dream. When the yogi finds the Self, the terrible knot that binds the heart – the idea of ‘I’ – will be cut asunder and I, the Self of the universe, will be realized.’
A young Burmese girl selling japa beads approached me and I bought a string of her jade beads to make her happy. She was a fisherman’s daughter from a local village, spoke four languages and told me that her Burmese name meant ‘Happy Rain’. She sat five metres away and watched me when I sat to meditate a little. Under the evening sky a monk was chanting the Buddhist mantra that concludes the great Heart Sutra – ‘gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha’ – ‘beyond, beyond, utterly beyond, hail enlightenment ….’ . I was enjoying the multiplicity of the world, the beautiful red and apricot sky, the gathering dark and peacefulness, the ritual incantations of the monk that pointed us past the unreality of the world toward the infinite:
‘No suffering, cause, extinction or path.
No knowledge nor anything to find. ….
A heart without any obstruction and thus no fear
Abandoning, overturning all dreams, all thoughts,
Finally reaching nirvana….’
Then in the gathering night I wandered back to our taxi with a fellow disciple, Happy Rain still following behind us. She felt to me like the soul of this country, all simplicity, purity, innocence, and I felt very deeply what Guru had spoken of, the great love that the Buddha has for these people, this country. I could feel the Buddha’s special love for Myanmar like a deep tenderness of the heart. Lights were coming on, lamps lit, the unhurried evening all peacefulness. As we drove away I felt a little sad that I could not offer more to Happy Rain, this Burmese child who had felt some kinship with these strangers and so unobtrusively befriended us.
In that brutal bad New Zealand winter of 2002 the worst storm ever recorded charged across the central North Island mountains, burying the forests in meters of snow and sending the few humans crazy enough to be out there in that onslaught fleeing for lonely mountain huts. Marooned by waist high drifts, fallen trees and winds colder than grief they huddled over cheerless fires while the storm howled and hammered at the windows like a break-in, eking out their food for the long wait. The canopies of that beautiful forest became weighed down by accumulating snow and when the lethal winds would not abate, toppled to the forest floor, their huge trunks shattering like match sticks. The great cathedral-like valleys and long skylines of ancient podocarps were decimated, a holocaust, their splintered blood red timbers oozing sap like the death of a great dynasty.
We came there for three days in 2011. The toppled forest giants lay in their beautiful ruins, engulfed now in ferns, algae, multiplying mosses, dissolving back into the earth, soil for the hibernating seeds of the new generations. Lichens, purple mushrooms, ancient symbiotic things competed for life on the armor plated bark; and myriad fungi, their delicate spiderweb filaments creeping out, hungry tentacles craving nutrients and life.
In pools of startling transparency, grandfather trout fit to grace any fisherman’s extravagant dreams lazed above pebble beds of smooth argillite and grey river stones. The water achingly cold, pure as tears. And deer tracks in the mud pans and snow, the splayed imprint of a hurrying stag, and last night, deft hooves of a hind, light, cautious. She stopped just there, listening deeply into the intense and telling silences, hearing every tiny sound of the night – stealthy wings, an owl trawling the dark; the mute whirr of a ghost moth; leaves moving, the sighing forest; the susurrations of water; far off a kiwi’s plaintive cry. Then reassured, moving on.
Our flimsy tent fly is not needed on this clear night and we lie on the forest floor in our sleeping bags, staring up through the dark shapes of trees into an indigo sky filled with dishevelled stars, a high tossed handful of jasmine flowers. Now the long wait till dawn, awareness without thought, the brimming silence, the attentive listening – not just into the darkness but into those deeper silences that are existential, open you up to other perspectives and broodings. The long night swallows up the follies in your mind.
Then 5 am, the dawn sky swallowing its last pale stars, retiring owls calling from the dark folds of hills, a dim figure shuffling down to the cold, crystalline river to wash. Then to meditate together around a fire piled high with deadfall. “ Look” says Ramana Maharshi in a passage I remember from somewhere. “ This little finger covers the eye and prevents the whole world from being seen. In the same way this small mind covers the whole universe and prevents Reality from being seen. See how powerful it is!”.
But in this silence before the dawn chorus of the birds the mind melts slowly away and there is only this moment attenuated out like a long string of presence, only the here and now and the simplicity of pure being. In this happiness, Guru writes, “we will really spread our wings, and we will feel that we are flying in the divine freedom-sky. The entire length and breadth of the world become ours, not for us to rule over but as an expansion of our consciousness. We become reality and vastness itself.”
- Feel gratitude at the very beginning of your meditation practise. This will remind you that you have reached a very special time in your evolution, and that you are awakening, that there is a quiet perfection behind your life that is giving you this special opportunity. You are among a tiny percentage of humanity opening up to a new consciousness – you are part of the rising wave of spirit that is coming into our world just now.
- Don’t limit your practise to your morning meditation in your room, but use meditation as a lifeskill and bring it out into your daily life. This is called karma yoga, the conscious application of your meditation into everyday events. Try this exercise offered by Sri Chinmoy. During your morning meditation, imagine a very beautiful flower in your heart – think of the flower as embodying one quality of your soul that you would like to offer, a quality like strength, love, patience, happiness, peace. Imagine the flower expanding in your heart, the image and fragrance of the soul-flower filling every part of your being and representing your chosen quality for that day – when you go out into your world, feel that you are offering this quality to everyone you meet. In this way, very quickly, you will multiply this positive quality in your nature, you will become what you imagined.
- Try to make your meditation heart-centred rather than mind-centred. The mind is incorrigibly busy by its very nature, ceaseless like the waves on the surface of a lake. The spiritual heart however is the depths of the lake, the silent inner space where you experience consciousness without thought, and where silence and stillness offer doorways into an entirely different part of your being. Try to feel a sense of being at rest in this inner space, observe the wanderings of the mind with detachment and let each thought pass away, see how still you can become. Here in this inner realm where the mind is left behind, many discoveries await us – access to the ‘inner pilot’ where we find the wisdom and intelligence of the soul; the ‘remembering’ of meditation as something natural, essential and spontaneous; creative talents; an understanding of what is really important in our life, and of what is not. But much, much more.
- Another very powerful attribute of the spiritual heart is the power of love. When freed up from earthly attachments and human wants, this power of love can be greatly expanded, becoming free of personal need and widening into its many manifestations as compassion, sympathy and kindness, oneness with the sufferings of others. One of its aspects is devotion, and this feeling of the heart belongs to a branch of meditation called bhakti yoga. Here meditation moves away from purely self-effort to an inclusiveness, and here again we encounter the idea of grace. In bhakti yoga the practitioner of meditation feels more like a child – his sincerity is enough to bring the loving parent to his side. If there is a fast track in meditation, this is probably it – devotion is like an invisible bridge between man and God, between the finite and the infinite. It is not an irrational discarding of reason, but rather the opposite, the intelligence and wisdom of the heart that sees past the appearances of life to something deeper. The hearts capacity for devotion utilizes one of the most powerful forces in human life – the power of love – and opens the doorway to many most significant inner experiences.
- There will be times during the day when your meditation is easier and more accessible, and it is important to explore a little here. Try meditating on a bus ride, seated in a park, walking down a quiet road or along a seashore. You don’t need to only meditate in your space at home – bring this awakening gift out into your life as well. Once, in a busy airport departure lounge, Sri Chinmoy had a small group of us meditate six or seven times, one minute each time, with an interlude of instruction between each. We were going up and down the ladder of consciousness, back and forth from attentive-mind to silence-heart, standing there amidst so many people. He was training us to understand that the ability to meditate is always there inside us, wherever we are, and that with practise we can achieve an unwavering peace and happiness even in the face of life’s harshest challenges.
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In the great task of finding happiness and peace through meditation, there are some simple, useful things to keep in mind. Some of these are mentioned here:
- Don’t be too concerned with finding the right technique in meditation. Spiritual master Sri Chinmoy once commented that our own souls are our best teacher – in other words the ability to meditate is already there inside you, accessible in your deepest silences and stillness.
- This is why it is helpful to understand that meditation is not so much about learning – filling the mind with theory, techniques, knowledge – but rather about remembering! All you need to know, and your own unique spiritual path, is a remembering of a forgotten part of your inner life that is already there inside you.
- One of the great secrets is sincerity – the disciplined commitment to practise. See every effort at meditation as a step on an inner journey, and progress is not measured by your lofty experiences but by the daily steps taken when you practise. Like a marathon, where even the most arduous steps are nevertheless moving you closer to finishing, every moment in meditation is a step closer to happiness, insight, peace. Every day take another step.
- This is why the struggle to quieten the mind or the restless body, the addictive habits and repetitions of thoughts, are where you make progress. Right there, that is where peace and liberation are to be won. These struggles are the coalface, the place where you confront the things in yourself that need to be transformed, where you regain mastery of your mind and access to your spiritual heart.
- One of the great secrets of meditation is the role of grace. Sincerity, mentioned above, is like an inner magnet that brings grace into our lives and into our practise. What is grace? Just as the cry of a hungry child brings the immediate response of the parent, meditation is described by spiritual masters as the cry of the soul for happiness, freedom, peace – and grace is the response of the universe, of God, of an intelligence barely understood by the mind. Grace brings to us all that we need – the people, the understandings and opportunities, the insights. It is the law of attraction operating in the realm of spirit.
- Set weekly goals and write up a chart of these goals to aim at every day – your morning meditation, perhaps a shorter evening meditation as well, some reading from a meditation book to inspire the mind, a regime of daily exercise to upgrade your sense of wellbeing and to prepare the body to sit quietly, dietary modifications to improve your health and so forth. How many ticks on your goal chart can you get each day, each week? Try for a perfect week.
- Group meditation is very helpful. The energy, aspiration and sincerity of others around you who share your journey will increase your strength, uplift and energise your meditation. Historically it is called ‘satsang’ – the community of like-minded souls that expedite our progress.
I recently had the good fortune to visit Ireland with a group of musicians. Inspired by earlier pilgrimages to Iceland, Scotland, Myanmar and other world locations steeped in spiritual history, Oneness-Dream – our a cappella troupe of singers – recently toured and performed in the southern counties of Ireland.
Like neighboring Scotland, Ireland too saw the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century, and strong links between monasteries in these two countries paved the way for missionaries to spread Christianity throughout north and west Europe. From the early seventh century, Iona in Scotland, Clonmacnoise and Glendalough in Ireland became centres of excellence for students from all over Europe. Both countries are dotted with the ruins of these ancient places of spiritual learning.
Almost 20 years ago the Dublin Sri Chinmoy Centre was founded by several visiting New Zealanders, and has since offered free, community-based events such as public concerts, sporting fixtures, meditation and self-awareness classes to thousands of people. Appropriately, our first concert was offered here. Then onwards we drove into the heartland. Our eighteen performances revisited many of Ireland’s notable sites, the great cathedrals and tumbling ruins and holy places that have endured and inspired over the millennia. In our humble way, we were re-living a small part of the history of the great spiritual quests of those ancient times, singing the timeless songs of the soul.
One of our most memorable visits was to Jerpoint Abbey, Thomastown, a 12th century ruin in Kilkenny county. A national monument since 1880, it was built in 1180 as a Cistercian Abbey by the King of Osraige on the site of an even earlier Benedictine monastery. It is notable for its imposing central tower and it’s sculpted cloister arcades. The stone carvings, many of which are oddly humorous, depict knights, ladies, bishops, dragons and even a man with a stomach ache! Jerpoint became a ‘favorite place’ of sepulchre (where people chose to be buried) and all the great families from the surrounding counties were vying to end up in this place! The abbey flourished until King Henry VIII began the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ between 1536 – 51.
We had a ‘St Francis of Assisi’ experience here when one of our singers was to record a solo performance. When he began to sing, remarkably, scores of ravens suddenly converged upon the castle as though in response to his songs, lining the battlements and turrets and high stone walls, their heads cocked and listening. Then then they began their own accompanying performance, much chortling and cawing and whistling, a wonderful avian chorus all but drowning out the robust voice of our Scottish baritone. We were all smiles at this collaboration of voices, as though mother nature herself was participating in this symphony of joy. We were amazed by the response of the ravens, their attentive listening and then their own carolling songs, joining with us in collaboration – were they applauding us, celebrating with us, singing their own songs of praise? They seemed like the souls of the ancient ones drawn back to their ancestral home, bird spirits returning to the human realm in remembrance.
You can hear some of this on the audio track here: Click on the Jerpoint Abbey sound track!