Notes From Some Travels in Iceland


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.