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The Cheerful Loser

My running life has had a chequered past. I know I’m not alone in having detested cross-country at school, but that’s no true prediction of one’s relationship with the sport anyway. Who wants to be clambering through mud and weeds in the dead of winter, clad only in shorts and a polo shirt? Very few. A sadistic glint in the eye of our games mistress was never more apparent than on those frosty and overcast days. Only the heart can heal such misadventure, and inspire one to try again in later life.

In my latter teens my mother cajoled me onto the country lanes for two miles each day before breakfast, and I learned to love that wholesome start to the morning. But running was not so fashionable as aerobics in the late 80s and early 90s, so I soon chose to exert myself in the more convenient setting of a gym. It was only on joining Sri Chinmoy’s path of meditation in the late 90s that the subject of running even raised its head again. My Guru was a champion decathlete at the Indian ashram where he spent his youth. Later, having moved to America, he took up marathon and ultra-distance running.

Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy’s teachings combine the ancient depth of the East with the modern dynamism of the West. Though he enjoyed and excelled at many sports – weightlifting, football, tennis, cycling – running held a very special place in his heart. The Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run still continues each year – a torch relay, spreading the message of peace across countries and continents. Races are held each year in his name too, throughout the world – from 1 mile to 3100 miles.

So running is woven into this path of meditation, and in time I learned to love it again. I even managed to run a couple of marathons, and worked full-time at a branch of Run and Become for a few years. But overall my relationship with running has been rocky. For the last 20+ years I’ve battled with CFS and its retinue of ailments – with which I won’t bore you here. Not that running is necessary for spiritual progress, of course, and Sri Chinmoy would never encourage us to push ourselves beyond that which is safe or healthy anyway, but his emphasis on running stems from the inner opportunity it offers. It’s especially simple and direct.

And so I come to be huffing and chuntering like Ivor the Engine along a country lane at 7 o’clock of a Sunday morning. Each year our British and French meditation centres meet for weekends known as Joy Days. Amongst the regular features like meditation, singing, socialising and copious amounts of food, is the 2-mile race. Mine is usually a mile’s walk at best – a jog could render me unwell for at least the rest of Sunday, and probably Monday to boot. Let me not bore you here with the details of my new regime, but it has at least afforded me the luxury of tying on my running shoes and heaving my 115 lb frame along at a 12-minute pace.

In reaching the start line, I face both the physical discomfort of my lack of fitness and the social discomfort of displaying it to all and sundry. Need the race really be marshalled by a running coach, a Channel swimmer, a champion cyclist and a 3100-mile race finisher though? Apparently so. That should add to my embarrassment, but it adds to my amusement. I’ve found the best athletes are often the most encouraging to those least able anyway. My experience provides a great wealth of data on that subject, and today is no exception.

“I’m the last, thanks,” I gasp out triumphantly to each marshal I pass – or at least that’s what I hope it sounds like – informing them their job is done, so they can go in from the cold. From the final bend to the stopwatch probably feels like a long straight for anyone, but I can only coax myself from one tiny goal to another. At first the markers were big things, like cars or the stone walls of houses. On the ultimate lap they’re daffodils, barely a stride’s length apart.

Everything in me protests in pain and a desperate longing for air, but all ahead are kindly cheering, calling me on in oneness (and perhaps a little mirth – I don’t mind if so). While part of me cringes in self-consciousness, and I may be grimacing outwardly, most of me effuses joy and gratitude. Genuinely. This, let me tell you, is progress in itself.

The journey of accepting my fate as a perennial loser has been a long one. Twice a year I visit New York, where Sri Chinmoy made his home from 1964 to his passing in 2007. There we have a 2-mile race on Saturdays, for which I at least turn up. At the lofty peak of my fitness I only broke 17 minutes for 2 miles, and then just once. I have never been – and probably never will be – good at running in the physical sense.

But the point is self-transcendence – competing with one’s own prior achievements and with one’s own inner limitations. So mine is to do my best in propelling myself forward, but also – crucially, as I have learnt by hard experience – to do so with sincerity and cheerfulness. While watching my fitness decline over several years, I would often finish those races in tears – of frustration and self-pity – and there is far more shame in that than in finishing last, believe me. In the absence of athletic prowess, and when I also fail to remain in a soulful mood, I’ve since found the greatest asset to be a sense of humour.

Not only would I be lapped by countless runners, but would have to dodge round clusters of them at the finish, in order to embark on the last epic lap of my own. When I had looped back again at last, there was often just a space where the display clock had been, so I never actually knew how dismal my time was. A few helpers would be bumbling around, clearing dead cups from the street, the water urns all drained of their last drops when I was finally ready for them.

During Sri Chinmoy’s life he would offer a prayer and prasad (blessed food) at the end of each race. If I arrived in time for either, that counted as a victory to me. But often I was still shuffling around when everyone else turned back the other way in droves for breakfast, not considering for a moment that I might still be ‘racing’ at such velocity. Assuming I was doing some kind of modest cool-down, someone might even try to engage me in conversation. I wasn’t laughing then, but it’s hugely funny to me now.

It’s taken time, but having witnessed members of my family – for various reasons – unable to walk so far as the local shop for a pint of milk, I’ve seen my own capacities in a new light. Even when running has been out of the question, the ability to walk can seem like a super power in its own right. I can now say that to run at all, even pathetically badly, is a privilege. To run is to offer what I have – even the precious breath that feels like my last – with as honest and joyful a feeling as I can.

While Sri Chinmoy advocates a healthy body to support a life of meditation, he also sees running as a metaphor for life itself, as evidenced in his talks and poems. Through his teachings and through my own experience, I believe if I can master an approach to running, I take a step towards mastering my approach to life – albeit slow and shuffling. If ever I’m fortunate enough to join a race, I may well be last, but I need not be the loser.

The loser’s inner speed
Is lethargy.
The loser’s outer speed
Is unwillingness.

The winner’s inner speed
Is self-offering.
The winner’s outer speed
Is self-perfection-smile.

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 645)

* * *

You can never be a loser,
You can only be a winner
Every time
If you race
On a sincerity-progress-track.

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 1257)

* * *

The Starter of all things
Is fond of both the winner
And the loser.

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 8135)

* * *

He is the great winner
Who wins.

He is the greater winner
Who is the cheerful loser.

He is the greatest winner
Who gives equal value
To victory and defeat.

He alone is the real loser
Who separates
Defeat from victory.

– Sri Chinmoy (DL 939)

* * *

If you are a cheerful loser,
Then in God’s Eye
Nobody else but you
And you alone
Is the unparalleled winner.

– Sri Chinmoy (FF 9582)

* * *

Start again.
Yours is not the life
Of a loser’s lamentation,
But yours is the heart
Of a winner’s exhilaration.

– Sri Chinmoy (ISA 23)

* * *

A gratitude-heart will always be
The first-place finisher
In the Heavenward race.

– Sri Chinmoy (ST 31885)


Why do I meditate (and why do I write)?

It is often said that while meditation is simple, it may not be easy. In a growing culture of ever-quicker fixes, those new to meditation are prone to giving up early, convinced they lack the aptitude. In truth, few take to it naturally right away. It is the effort, the direction, the giving of priority, of time, of space, which are pivotal. One cannot sow a seed and force its growth in the space of a day. Even a good meditation cannot be measured like a waistline or a golf score. One may not know how profound a meditation has been until surfacing again into the world, even if then.

Though I first learned to meditate around thirty years ago, and practised somewhat regularly, today marks twenty years of my formally practising a spiritual life, as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. Before embarking on such a journey – as on any journey – the mind wants to know what is involved. What skills, provisions, equipment will be required? How may I ready myself? One may as well leave provisions behind, along with any preconceptions. All is amply provided, and revealed in its own time. It need not make sense. In fact it is highly unlikely to make sense to the mind at all.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes his personal tale of becoming a Trappist monk. He thought joining a silent order would mean a life of solitude, quietude, leaving the outer world – including his writing career – behind, and that seems a fair assumption. Were that assumption right, the book itself would not exist. In a candid open letter to God, he says:

Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, in the thirty-third year of my age, being a cleric in minor orders – before I went to make my solemn vows, this is what it looked like to me. It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.

By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith

Twenty years after lying in metaphorical dust myself, I know now as I knew then that this is right for me, when up to then I had no clue of how to lead my life. In fact I had made an awful mess of trying. I was especially fortunate the first ten years of my discipleship fell during Sri Chinmoy’s lifetime. The second have been spent since his passing, but are no less rich or rewarding. Though I meditate daily, sing songs my Guru composed, and read his writings, it would take more than a lifetime to absorb and apply even a fraction of these gifts.

Often Sri Chinmoy would take spiritual questions from an individual, and often his replies would be published for all to read. So many spiritual challenges are universal, as are the spiritual truths and inspirations a Master may give to answer them. But a significant aspect of Sri Chinmoy’s path is the idea that each person has a soul unique in all Creation, albeit a perfect spark of one Source. Spiritual progress is intertwined with the recognition of that soul – of the Source within us – and with bringing it to the fore in daily life. While the Goal of spiritual practice may be the same for all, the route is unique for each.

I was not outwardly all that close to Sri Chinmoy, and never had the opportunity to ask him spiritual questions. Rarely I had occasion to ask practical questions by letter, and yet more rarely he would address me directly in speech. If I could distil the outer portion of this teaching, it would have three points:

  1. Write
  2. Speak up
  3. Do what gives you joy

Simple, but not easy. Though concise and comprehensible, these prescriptions actually form more than a lifetime’s inner work for me. Yet they have already afforded me inner wealth beyond my imagining.

The first thing I should tell you, in case you don’t know, is that I’m a life-long introvert. Like Merton, if I thought the spiritual life would mean solitude – especially a complete withdrawal from speech – I would seriously consider it, albeit for different reasons. Mostly I can manage conversation with one person at a time, although the duration needs must vary. But when my voice reaches more than one set of ears, it is prone to falter. The facts and stories in my mind – generally well-ordered and filed, at least by category if not strictly by date – break or dissolve entirely under the pressure of presenting them. I would my mind could be so blank in meditation.

Many have tried to ‘cure’ me – trials by fire, as it were – but these experiments have only ended in further disaster. Such sea changes clearly cannot happen by force, if at all. There is no medicine for introversion anyway, as it is not an illness to be healed. While it is seen as weakness by an extrovert-led society, I have come to discover its strength. This is beautifully illustrated in a recent post by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew:

The real power-players today aren’t those who hold the big, external positions of leadership. They are the people who are calm, creative, able to step away from events, see them clearly, imagine new ways to frame them, and launch fearlessly back into that good work. They are willing to see both the big picture and the details. They are undaunted by the slow pace of creation. They love the process more than the product. They are people whose hearts are open to change, who create from that vulnerable, open place.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Indeed introversion need not equal a lack of confidence, and I believe that is what my Guru sought to teach me. True confidence has nothing to do with ego or audible volume – it is a deep inner quality, founded on the bedrock of the Source. And it is there I continue to search for it in myself – with varying success, but with an ever-clearer picture of my goal.

Of course, introversion is a great asset when it comes to writing. A writer must closet herself away from interference and distraction. Writing is neither simple nor easy, but I don’t find it anywhere near the onerous task poor Merton hints at. If speaking can one day bring me half as much enjoyment as writing, I’ll be jolly glad (and utterly amazed). Sri Chinmoy encouraged writing as a companion to the spiritual life. He himself wrote prolifically, and published hundreds of books, including thousands on thousands of poems. He recommended his disciples write down any experiences we may later find of inspiration. Even advanced aspirants cross bleak deserts on their journeys, and may even lose their way entirely. To recollect times of special insight or joy can help to reorient the seeker, and recalibrate inner instruments.

Requiring discipline, concentration and a courageous search within, writing itself can be its own sadhana. To write heightens my inner senses, and drives me to authenticity. On a human level, writing empowers the introvert in me – giving her time to compose her thoughts without interruption, contradiction or awkward silences. She may also imagine she is speaking to one person at a time, to allay any undue fear. But most of all it is the sharpening and widening of consciousness that draws me to it. The truest reasons are the same for writing as for meditation:

Our Goal is within us. To reach that Goal we have to take to the spiritual life. In the spiritual life, the thing that is most needed is awareness or consciousness. Without this, everything is a barren desert. When we enter into a dark place, we take a flashlight or some other light in order to know where we are going. If we want to know about our unlit life, we have to take the help of our consciousness. Let us go deeper into the matter. We know that the sun illumines the world. But how are we aware of it? We are aware of it through our consciousness, which is self-revealing. The functioning of the sun is not self-revealing. It is our consciousness of the sun that makes us feel that the sun illumines the world. It is our consciousness that is self-revealing in everything.

– Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life. The journey of India’s Soul.

Sri Chinmoy’s third prescription was given with regard to my occupation, and I could not have been more surprised had he recommended I become a construction worker, or a politician, or anything seemingly less compatible with my nature. That which has become an empowering and immensely practical piece of advice, at first baffled me completely. What has joy to do with work, I wondered. Is not work synonymous with toil, sacrifice and necessity?

By increments I have dared to follow it. I would not have thought to give myself such extravagant permission, but have found it equally liberating and practical in all aspects of living. It was as though he had handed me a kaleidoscope of wonder through which to see my life anew. In practice it is simple, but not easy. I must constantly ask myself where is the real distinction between joy and comfort. True joy is perhaps like eating a salad of fresh vegetables in every colour of the rainbow. Comfort or pleasure is like bingeing on half a packet of chocolate cookies. The latter brings only short-lived happiness and is instantly regrettable. Always we have the boon and the burden of free will.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott imagines we each have our own ‘emotional acre’ given at birth, and only we may decide how to use it. I love that image, and can see the metaphor applied to inner life in general:

As long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all. If you want your acre to look like a giant garage sale, or an auto-wrecking yard, that’s what you get to do with it.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I imagine my acre as mostly garden – perhaps a few covered rooms with lots of windows. My acre may appear plain to those who fill theirs with tall buildings and grand belongings. Though it may have many coloured fruits and flowers, its calm spaces are deliberate and essential. My acre may be too simple for some, but to keep a space clear when all of life is bent on crowding in it is not always easy. Not easy to spot and root out the bindweed of attachment, thistles of dissatisfaction, brambles of self-deception, and the creeping moss of insecurity. Daily it must be done. Hourly, even.

Mine is not to live as conventional nuns and monks do, but I endeavour to weave my spiritual practice into all of living – working, cleaning, cooking, eating always with an eye on the metaphorical garden. That is the way not only to spot the weeds, but also to enjoy its ample delights, its sweet fragrances and pure blossoms. And so, my one imaginary reader, I look out on a copse of metaphorical cherry trees as I write to you, and I wish you happy in your own acre too.

In gratitude to Sri Chinmoy for twenty astonishing years.


Laosen Does the Impossible

Based on the story by Sri Chinmoy
Laosen does the impossible. Performed on January 1st 2017 for students of Sri Chinmoy on a winter retreat in Kalamata, Greece.


Sun God


[Enter Sun god from East, exit West]

[Enter Karnasen]

I am Karnasen, although perhaps you doubt my word.
This figure may not tally with the stories you have heard
from years long past, now lost within the annals of my youth.
Yes, I am Karnasen – it has turned out a heavy truth –
while I carry only dreams of all the battles I have scored,
and riches I collected then by way of my reward.
Lightning quick, they used to say, and stronger than a horse. [Laughs modestly]
Good and just, I hope at least – I never ruled by force.
That last war, though fairly fought, came at tremendous cost.
My childhood bride, my warrior sons, my palaces were lost.
My armies then were slaughtered – every animal and man.
But call it luck or call it fate, this new life then began.
My enemy soon let me free, and sent me on my way.
Go, good king, he gently said, your hair is fading grey,
your day is done, your time is past, go peacefully and rest.
Through his honour and compassion I knew I was blessed,
yet wandered here with nothing but the clothes upon my back,
peering at a future I saw miserable and black.
I slept in forests on the way – what else can outcasts do? –
till I was offered shelter and the kindest welcome too.
My rooms are bright, the air is sweet, the grounds are like no other.
[Enter Gaur]
King Gaur it was who took me in, as would a long-lost brother.
I want for nothing – I have been bestowed a second life.

Nothing? Are you certain? What about a second wife?

A wife! Then what, a family? At my decrepit age?
My heart is weak, my eyes are dull, how would I earn a wage? [Laughs ironically]
I take comfort in my peace – to marry would be madness.

Your defeat has worn you down – you are but aged by sadness.
A wife will do the power of good, her company will cheer you.
And can you doubt the joy of having little children near you,
to play and sport and learn from you all that your days have known –
the legends of your valour and the empires you have grown?
Teach them all the skill you earned and raise them even stronger!
But do it now, I urge you not to leave it any longer. [Laughs cheekily]
I have someone in mind – the youngest sister of the Queen –
sweet of nature, and the fairest face you will have seen.
Calm of bearing too – she will not rob you of your peace.
I promise you, your happiness then cannot but increase.
Must you stretch out all your days in quietude and sorrow?
Ranjabati is her name, I’ll send for her tomorrow,
then I shall introduce you, if you kindly would allow.

Will she like me?

Yes. [Pauses]
Oh must I list your virtues now?

[Exit Gaur and Karnasen, laughing]
[Enter Sun god from East, exit West]


[Enter Kripan]
I am Kripan, as you know, world famous… in these parts –
brave, cunning, clever, and proficient in dark arts.
Second to the throne am I, that is but one credential.
Gaur’s only son died in his sleep [laughs guiltily] so I have great potential.
But I am parched with bitterness, I cannot bear the shame –
my sister Ranjabati has brought down my family name.
I was at war… or something of that nature I am certain,
when Karnasen, that devious brute, crept from behind the curtain
and took my sister for his bride, with none of my permission!
He is nothing but a beggar, with a fool’s ambition.
My sister is a failure, her honour is defiled:
two years since she married him and yet she has no child!
It was King Gaur’s grave error letting Karnasen in here.
My hackles rise whenever that foul parasite is near.
He wormed his way into our world and wants to overturn it.
There is some conspiracy, though I cannot discern it.
I hear the two men laughing, and their secrecy is sworn.
Some nights they do without their sleep, and talk until the dawn.
They ride together side by side, shoot arrows and play chess.
That ought to be my privilege, this is a rotten mess!
I must have what is my due – my fate is far from sealed.
[Enter Ranjabati]
You are a useless woman. You are but a barren field!

[Exit Kripan, Ranjabati starts to cry, enter Karnasen]

Ranjabati, come, tell me what has happened here!
Never since I met you have I seen you shed a tear.
What on earth could shake your poise and bring so much distress?

Shame and sadness both, and such that words cannot express!
A woman of good character I ever long to be,
and yet that self I cannot reach – a stranger still is she.

Unparalleled your character, and rich with every virtue.
People judge and criticise – you never let it hurt you,
but till you bear a child I know you will not feel complete.

I must go to the Sun god now and place this at his feet.
I know the chants and rites and I perform them every day,
but I must set aside my life and most sincerely pray.
Till I know he has heard me, I shall fast and forego sleep.
I must leave at once, for I have promises to keep.

Godspeed, good wife, I do believe your answer is secure.
How can the gods ignore petitions from a heart so pure?

[Exit Karnasen]

[Enter Sun god from East, exits West, Ranjabati follows with folded hands]


[Enter Laosen, running]

You do not know me yet, hello, they call me Laosen –
my mother Ranjabati and my father Karnasen.
I have not much to tell you as I am but seventeen.
I have not cut my teeth on life, but am keyed up and keen!
[Exit Laosen, running. Enter Karnasen and Gaur behind.]

That boy of yours! Where does he get his energy and strength?
Every day it seems he covers half the country’s length!
Right from childhood he was drawn to wrestle and to fight.
Yet he is charming, sweet of nature, ever a delight.
You have raised him well, the boy must ever do you proud.

He does, and does so every day – by nothing is he cowed.
He fights with tigers and with whales, the boy is in his prime!
Three or four grown men you know he takes on at a time.
But I take no credit for the way he has turned out.
He is the Sun god’s gift to us, of that I have no doubt.
The child is a phenomenon, a miracle, a boon.
To all things born of darkness it appears he is immune.
Had not Ranjabati made her solitary prayer
we would not be fortunate to have him in our care.

GAUR: [looking behind]
Ah, now here comes Kripan, he is constantly suspicious –
the atmosphere around him is distinctly inauspicious.
Though he is of this kingdom, does he seek to overturn it?
There is some conspiracy, though I cannot discern it.

[Exit Gaur and Karnasen. Enter Kripan from behind.]

Why ever did I taunt my sister? Then from worse to worse!
The child Laosen was born and bore me nothing but a curse.
The king adored him from a babe – how he would coo and dandle.
To watch him grow into a man is more than I can handle.
He sickens me – his frame so light, yet stronger than an ox.
He fights so fair, and thinks so fast, so tiresome to outfox.
And how they praise and cheer him on, and never will desist:
Oh Laosen this and Laosen that – so do I not exist?
I have royal blood and I am second to the throne,
yet these beggars take my place, it riles me to the bone.
Rage it boils within me such that I can barely function.
Kill Laosen? Oh if I could, I would have no compunction!
But how, I ask – how many times have I found new ideas,
only to be thwarted – there is nothing that he fears.
Once I hired ruffians to stab him in his bed.
He came out with a minor cut that hardly even bled.
Once I gave a banquet ‘in his honour’ at my palace.
My first idea went awry – that was a poisoned chalice.
So I sent mad elephants to chase him home at night,
but he saw it as a game and laughed while taking flight!
This has gone on long enough – we cannot coexist.
I shall make the king a threat that he cannot resist.
[Enter Gaur]
Banish Laosen from this place, King Gaur, I entreat you!
If not, then I shall leave and raise an army to defeat you!

Kripan, are you ill? What has inflamed this fit of rage?
Let us calmly talk this through, your anger to assuage.
How could I consider banishing a dear relation?
And why should I do it when there is no accusation?
If he goes, he leaves us with the odds against us stacked –
who would then defend us if our kingdom is attacked?
He is our secret weapon – no opponent can defeat him.

Really? Is he such a god that mortals cannot beat him?
Will he do what is impossible, this darling boy of yours?
I speak of things beyond the mere art of waging wars.

Impossible? He does not know the meaning of the word.

Really? I will show you that your statement is absurd.
I will take your word for it but on one sole condition:
this one feat, and this alone will bow me to contrition –
can Laosen the hero make the sun rise in the West?

GAUR: [Pauses to think]
I am certain you will even see him pass that test.

[Exit Gaur]

Ah, what sport will follow on the folly of the king!
Blinded by his love… and love does have a nasty sting.
Sunrise in the West? Oh I will come and watch that show.
Pigs will fly, presumably, and hell will have some snow.

[Exit Kripan]


[Enter Laosen, running, looking. Enter Gaur, tentatively.]

Do not worry, good King Gaur, your promise I have heard.
I cannot see how just yet, but I shall keep your word.
My mother asked the Sun god for my life, thus I was born.
He is my progenitor – I am the child of dawn.
I offer my devotions and I thank him every day,
but I must set aside my life and most sincerely pray.
Till I know he has heard me, I shall fast and forego sleep.
I must leave at once, for we have promises to keep.
[Exit Laosen to the East, running. Exit Gaur, worried.]

[Enter Sun god from the East, Laosen follows with folded hands. They stand beside each other. Enter Kripan and Gaur.]

Look at this rank fool who thinks the sun will change its course.
Here is one thing he cannot accomplish just by force.
Three days we have waited – clearly it cannot be done.

Give him time and he will do it, you have not yet won.

[Exit Kripan and Gaur]

Laosen, I am pleased with you, o child of my light.
I will try to grant your wish, but heavy grows the night.
I must leave your company, come back to me at morn.
Continue in your prayer meanwhile, as sleep you have forsworn.

[Exit Sun god to West. Laosen follows, then returns.]

He will try, but gods are not aware of earthly time.
My uncle is impatient and is predisposed to crime.
I must preserve the honour and the safety of the king,
but for the sun to change its course is not a trifling thing.
I must find a way to show him I am most sincere –
that I truly am his child and have transcended fear.
The ultimate in sacrifice is difficult indeed,
but it is the only way in time I might succeed.
I shall cut off my own head to show him my devotion.
Words have strength, but deeds contain the power of an ocean.
If I merely die, I know that I have done my best,
but if my gesture pleases, let the sun rise in the West.

[Exit Laosen East.]

[Enter Sun god from East, holding Laosen’s head.]

All now hail, and look upon the face of true devotion!
Yea, for this would all the stars and gods adjust their motion.
If you say I am bound by my predictable condition,
I will answer: you are right, I am no great magician.
I do not change my course for entertainment or for threats,
or because some braggart has decided to place bets.
If Kripan had come to me and challenged me directly,
I would still be navigating through the sky correctly,
but what will I not do for my sincere devotee?
Myself perhaps you can defeat, but surely never he.
God has never any need to prove He is Supreme,
and knows impossibility is but a human dream.
For devotees impossibility does not exist,
as God Himself will change the course of nature to assist.
Never challenge devotees, for you will surely lose.
[to Laosen]
Now you must away and tell your family the news!
[Pauses teasingly, then continues, laughing fondly]
Come, Laosen, I will undo the workings of your knife.
You have pleased me such that I will give you back your life.
And Kripan, for his cruelty, I have devised a curse:
leprosy. You see in his case nothing could be worse.
To you a life in exile was the fate he tried to deal.
Now comes his opportunity to learn how outcasts feel.


[Sun god exits West. Laosen enters West. Karnasen, Ranjabati and Gaur enter East, followed by Kripan.]

Father, Mother and King Gaur, I have tremendous news!
The Sun god now has promised, so we surely cannot lose –
From the West the sun will rise for certain in the morning!
Come, the night has nearly passed, and day will soon be dawning!

Ah, he specifies a time, I hold him to that word!
In the morning – that is set, and cannot be deferred.
If it does not come to pass, then you must throw him out.

Yes, but he will do it, I am not in any doubt.

[Enter Sun god from West.]


Photo by Bijoy


The Best Spiritual Memoirs

heart-book(…in my subjective opinion). This is a work in progress – I hope to collect more spiritual memoirs and autobiographies here as I read them, and write more on the ones I found the best. Do leave me your own recommendations in the comments, as I’m always looking out for more. Although my reading is somewhat skewed towards the Indian tradition – because that’s the basis of my own spiritual path – I enjoy sincere spiritual writing from any background.

Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo


Twelve-Years-with-Sri-Aurobindo-NirodbaranI would treasure this book for the brilliant writing alone, but it is also a source of spiritual inspiration and an important historical record. Written with devotion, but without stooping to sentimentality, this is a description of one of the greatest spiritual Masters ever to live, from the viewpoint of his disciple and attendant, Nirodbaran. Until the late 1930s, Sri Aurobindo lived in almost complete seclusion at his Ashram in Pondicherry. Following an injury, and up until the time of his passing in 1950, he needed closer medical attention. The author initially entered the scene as a doctor, but over time his service evolved to cover various roles, including that of stenographer for Sri Aurobindo’s immortal works of poetry. A candid, humble and intimate account.

The Master as I Saw Him

Being Pages from the Life of the Swami Vivekanada

Sister Nivedita

master-as-i-saw-himThis is such a precious and important book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I’m sure I will read it again. It is an incredibly humble but intelligent description of Swami Vivekanada’s life through the eyes of a close disciple. I found myself almost wishing Sister Nivedita had not been so humble in her writing, as I wanted to know more about her own struggles and victories, but of course that very humility is one of her greatest strengths, and she has achieved exactly what the title promises: Swami Vivekananda as she saw him. She herself is all but invisible while relating what she has learnt and what she remembers. Her Victorian use of language is delightfully precise. It has enough Western interpretation to make it relatable to a Western reader, but without losing the intensity or freshness of this remarkable life – a life instrumental in bringing Indian spiritual traditions to the West. It gives fascinating insights, not only into what it was like to be with Swami Vivekananda in person, but also into his teachings. It is moving and often breath-taking, without at any point being sentimental.

My Guru and His Disciple

Christopher Isherwood

my-guru-and-his-discipleI absolutely love this book. I almost wished I could wipe it from my memory as soon as I’d finished it, so I could go back and discover it anew right away. Isherwood’s writing itself is a work of genius – his descriptions are pure elegant simplicity, completely clear windows on his experience. His honesty as a spiritual seeker is itself a triumph. The story describes his time with Swami Prabhavananda, and how he struggles to balance East and West, inner and outer life.

A Search in Secret India

Paul Brunton

A Search in Secret IndiaFor anyone seeking a spiritual teacher, or even anyone having found the right one, this story is incredibly moving. Brunton’s erudite use of language, coupled with his ruthless inner and outer search, makes this a gripping read from start to finish. Following an inner call, he spends months travelling around India, interrogating yogis, pundits and fakirs – some genuine and some not so. His descriptions of the journey alone would make a beautiful travel journal. But his descriptions of inner experiences are breath-taking, especially those in the company of the great Ramana Maharshi. I can’t believe I had not come across this book before now – it’s amongst the very finest examples of this genre.

Story of a Soul

The Autobiography of the Little Flower

Saint Thérèse de Lisieux

story-of-a-soulI highly recommend this book to any sincere spiritual seeker, regardless of religious background. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux was clearly born an extraordinary person with a unique spiritual calling, and yet her story is written straight from the heart, with such humility and simplicity, it becomes relatable. Personally I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not only physical illnesses, but also feeling pain when others are unkind. Somehow this gives me hope – for myself and for the rest of humanity – that our own struggles are not in vain.

Autobiography of a Yogi

Paramahansa Yogananda

autobiography-of-a-yogiThis book probably needs no introduction, as it’s widely known and immensely popular. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Touching to the heart, fascinating to the mind, nourishing for the soul, this is a must-read.

The Seven Storey Mountain

An Autobiography of Faith

Thomas Merton

thomas-merton-seven-storey-mountainThis is a long book, and parts of it are a little prescriptive for an autobiography. Even so, I did not skip or scan a single word – partly due to Merton’s captivating honesty, and partly due to his brilliant gift for recall and description. The story charts his life from childhood in France, education in England, traveling in Italy and working in New York during the 1930s, then to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. His somewhat dour exterior gives way to sensitive and candid insights. His observation of people – including himself – is especially astute. A spiritual search can often be tortuous, so in a sense the long route adds authenticity. This is a true classic, and one I will revisit like an old friend – one who understands how it is to examine the outer world and to find it wanting in fulfilment.

Long Quiet Highway

Waking Up in America

Natalie Goldberg

long-quiet-highwayThis is one of my favourite books full stop, let alone spiritual memoirs. Natalie Goldberg’s writing itself comes from the sort of genius that makes you sit up and pay attention, whatever she happens to be talking about, but the story is compelling too, making this a real treasure of spiritual literature. Goldberg takes the reader by the hand as she struggles to make sense of life, to work out who she is and where she belongs, ultimately discovering Zen meditation and her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi. This is a vibrant, intimate, and often funny book, thanks to the author’s honesty and her passion for living authentically.


Elisabeth Haich

initiationThis is an unusual story, in that the author remembers experiences in past incarnations – most notably one in ancient Egypt – and links them to her present life. It’s fascinating just from a scientific and historical viewpoint as she recalls in great detail mysterious practices from thousands of years ago. From a spiritual viewpoint it is all the more captivating and inspiring, if a little terrifying in places. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s the kind of book that stays with you, for better or worse. From it I’ve found genuine encouragement to be ever more conscious in my own spiritual life.

Daughter of Fire

A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master

Irina Tweedie

daughter-of-fireFollowing the death of her husband, Russian-born Irina Tweedie found her Sufi master during a trip to India at the age of 52. This book is the diary he told her keep, spanning five years of her spiritual journey. He insisted she wrote down everything, including her doubts and struggles. Chasm of Fire is a shorter version of her journal, but I like the transparency of this complete version. I was not very familiar with Sufism when I first read it, so I found her unfoldment of its customs fascinating and beautiful. Tweedie was the first Western woman to be trained in this tradition, and above all I admire her courage. Hers was a challenging journey to say the least, but she stuck with it through thick and thin, and her inner rewards are plain to see.

Traveling Mercies

Some Thoughts on Faith

Anne Lamott

traveling-merciesI’m not really sure where to start with this one, and I only chose one because it seemed unfair to choose three from the same author. Grace (Eventually) and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith equally deserve a mention. Lamott’s writing is not only moving, funny, courageous and relatable, but is also aesthetically brilliant. She never shies from the struggles and imperfections of being human, and so her spiritual insights and breakthroughs are all the more precious. I love everything about these books, but Lamott’s Christian calling in Traveling Mercies is particularly moving.

On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path

Stories by disciples of Sri Chinmoy

On Sri Chinmoy's Sunlit PathA very good introduction to Sri Chinmoy‘s life as a spiritual Master and life in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It somehow encapsulates the vast diversity of Sri Chinmoy’s activities, as well as the diversity of his students. It also illustrates the sacred bond between Guru and disciple, particularly in a modern context. Here people from various countries and backgrounds talk about their experiences with Sri Chinmoy while he was on earth, as well as describing how their spiritual lives have continued to flourish since his passing in 2007. One gets a broad overview, but from the very personal viewpoints of many different writers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Eastern spirituality as applied to Western and modern life. A colourful, interesting read, full of contrast and variety.

Now and Then

A Memoir of Vocation

Frederick Buechner

Now-and-Then-BuechnerNow and Then is the second in a trilogy of short memoirs by Buechner, along with The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets. This is my favourite of the three, though I enjoyed them all. It covers the author’s rather shambling journey to seminary, and a gradual growing into life as a Christian minister. I love the stark realism in the stories, and his broad-minded approach to religion. His melancholy, self-deprecating honesty is utterly endearing, and the writing is sublime. His views on writing itself, and how it may dovetail with a spiritual life, are brave and consoling. While the sentences can be long, tiring journeys, the destination is always worth the effort. These are books I will treasure and re-visit.


Nuns Talking

Mary Loudon

unveiled-nuns-talkingI haven’t binge-read in a long time, but this book leapfrogged all the others waiting patiently on my shelf. Western culture has assumed for too long that women committing their lives to spirituality do so either because society has failed them, or because they have failed in society. If ever you thought nuns lack moxie, individuality, intelligence or social conscience, you’ll be glad to see such myths debunked. On the other hand, if (like me) you’re following a genuine spiritual path of your own, especially if (like me) you’re female, you’ll be very glad to see such myths debunked. You might even let out a Hurrah! of solidarity. These ten stories are collected by a self-confessed sceptic, straight from the mouths of nuns – nuns from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of orders, with strong views and unique characters. These are memoirs at their most raw – beautifully transparent and richly authentic.

Angels in My Hair

The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic

Lorna Byrne

angels-in-my-hairAnother book that probably needs no introduction. Byrne’s simplicity and humility, her struggles and victories, I find most inspiring. Reading her I feel like I’m sitting down by a cosy fireside with a cup of tea. It’s as though she’s right there talking, and I’m on the edge of my seat, saying, “Tell me more!”.

Bones of the Master

A Journey to Secret Mongolia

George Crane

bones-of-the-masterGritty and honest (gruesome in places) this book feels like a friend, and I missed it when it was finished. I became very fond of the characters, the descriptions of inner and outer experiences, the insights into Ch’an Buddhism, and the poetry. It inspires and instructs, powerfully but with a light touch, like a poem in itself. Highly recommended to anyone interested in spiritual memoir and/or travel writing.

At the Feet of my Master

The Oneness of an ascending heart-cry and a descending Soul-Smile

Pradhan Balter

Feet-of-my-MasterA rare and special book, written by a close disciple of Sri Chinmoy. This is a short read, but rich in content, never shying away from the hot-potato topics faced by every spiritual seeker – jealousy, insecurity, doubt, pride, et al. While at times painful, at times funny, it is consistently inspiring and illumining. An honest and intimate view of the relationship between a contemporary spiritual Master and his disciple.

Blue Like Jazz

Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

Donald Miller

blue-like-jazzI wasn’t sure where this book was going at first, but was soon drawn in to Miller’s sincerity. His story is meaningful because he has not taken life or spirituality at face value – he’s not afraid to take things apart and experience them for himself. Somehow faith that survives that examination has a deep strength, and I find that admirable. His writing is candid and unpretentious. Sometimes I found him a little too flippant – he gave Buddhism quite a hard time here and there for example. I’m not a Buddhist, but it made me uncomfortable at first. Then I realised that’s just how he is – he gives himself the hardest time of all. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book overall, it’s a very inspiring and refreshing read. I would recommend it to anyone from any faith with a broad-minded approach to spirituality, who is interested in deepening their own experience. Read the book rather than watching the film – it didn’t work at all for me on screen.

Girl Meets God

On the Path to a Spiritual Life

Lauren Winner

girl-meets-godI found the candid descriptions of Winner’s journey refreshing and uplifting. She’s obviously very sincere in her spiritual quest, but she’s also very honest about her own capacities. It’s an easy read in terms of story-telling, but she shares a lot of academic and technical knowledge on Christianity and Judaism. Not knowing in detail what it’s like to be inside either religion, I found that illumining and interesting, especially when it’s put in the context of the author’s personal experience. The story doesn’t seem to have much of a structure – it’s more a collection of snapshots which make up a fuller picture – but personally I didn’t mind at all. Life is like that, so it’s somehow all the more relatable that way.

Running Beyond the Marathon

insights into the longest footrace in the world

Grahak Cunningham

beyond-the-marathonI am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I could not put this book down. It would surely be of inspiration to anyone striving to become a better version of themselves – whether through sports, meditation, creativity or service to others. While outwardly the story covers seemingly endless half-mile laps on the same patch of suburban concrete, it is a riveting inner adventure and a testimony to human endeavour, conveyed with candour, humour and humility.

Open Secrets

A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

Richard Lischer

Open SecretsThis is the story of a Lutheran pastor taking his first post in a rural American town, fresh out of seminary, believing himself amply equipped for the task, if not somewhat above it. As the community inadvertently gives him one character-building challenge after another, Lischer realises the true complexity of his role, and observes his own transformation with candour and humility. I often found myself somewhere between tears and laughter, frequently thinking, “Poor fellow! whatever next?,” as I witnessed him reconciling his training, his conscience, and his earnest faith. That which seems outwardly banal is turned into a study of human strength and goodness, as heart-warming as it is eye-opening.

The Boy Who Saw True

The Time-Honoured Classic of the Paranormal


The Boy Who Saw TrueMost of the story comprises the diary of a young boy, living in the north of England at the end of the 19th Century. The author at first has no idea that his special gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience are in the least unusual. He is innocent to the fact that not everyone may converse with the deceased, watch gnomes or fairies at play in the garden, or discern a person’s health and temperament by the state of his aura. Indeed such things are recorded in the same breath as everyday household news. Later, since so many topics are taboo at the time, he assumes it is simply not polite to mention them. Fortunately, with the help of teachers both worldly and ethereal, he learns to protect and nurture his talents. I found his relationships with these teachers most beautiful and moving, especially with one he sees only in visions, and first assumes must be Jesus.

Hybrid Spiritual Memoirs

Following are some good books that have a spiritual-memoir aspect.

He and I

Gabrielle Bossis

He and I, Gabrielle BossisThis is a very unusual book, translated from the French original Lui et Moi. Gabrielle Bossis was a single woman – a nurse and later a playwright. Here was a friendly and vivacious person – very much in the world of work and creativity, rather than living in seclusion as a nun. Yet her inner relationship with Christ is intensely strong. The story is not strictly a memoir, but she relates the teachings to her own experiences, so it is certainly a journey of discovery. I find this book deeply moving and encouraging. It brings the Ineffable into everyday life, and reminds us that is where He most wants to be.

The Eternal Companion

Swami Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings

Swami Prabhavananda

eternal-companionThis is part biography and part memoir. Swami Prabhavananda’s reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda’s life and teachings are compelling and beautiful in themselves. Then there is a section towards the end where different people speak about what they remember of the Master, this dear disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It is of course inspiring to hear of the greatness of spiritual masters – their power and luminosity – but the goodness in the smallest details of life is easily overlooked. Often such actions are just as instructive; sometimes more so, because they are more relatable.

The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen

the-snow-leopardTechnically this is a travel memoir, but it has a deep spiritual foundation. Worth five stars just for the aesthetic quality of the writing, let alone the masterful weaving together of inner and outer experiences. Ruggedly beautiful.

Acedia & Me

A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life

Kathleen Norris

Acedia and Me, Kathleen NorrisA book about spiritual apathy and hopelessness does not sound very inspiring at first, but the author’s battle against it certainly is. Acedia & Me is partly a text-book on the subject. It’s scholarly and rigorously researched, citing writings over the centuries that show acedia to be an age-old challenge. More than that, Norris posits acedia in the modern age, offering her own experience for detecting and conquering what monastics have long considered a demon. Thus her memoirs are woven throughout, as she faces down acedia in relationships, work and the repetitions of daily life. Though peppered with humour, it is a serious book. The subject itself is not light reading, and Norris faced many difficulties in her personal life, but it’s refreshing to see someone tackle such a difficult subject. Norris affirms that spiritual progress is not always a bowl of cherries, but that’s okay. Ultimately what matters is that it’s worth the effort.

Hand Wash Cold

Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash ColdUplifting, honest and masterfully written. I devoured this as a story in one sitting, but it could just as well be used for reference. It’s a little didactic for my taste, but the title admits it will be, so that’s not a complaint. While instruction is the premise of the book, Maezen – a wife, mother and Zen Buddhist priest – also describes her own continuing transformation with sincerity and beautiful prose. The main themes are self-acceptance and the sanctity of everyday life – the idea that paying attention to the ‘ordinary’, and taking it as spiritual practice, can lead to an extraordinary experience. I am always glad to be reminded of this alchemy, and it’s always worth celebrating.

Other Spiritual Memoirs I Enjoyed

Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong
Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis
The Initiate in the New World, Cyril Scott
Six Lighted Windows, Swami Yogeshananda
A Search in Secret Egypt, Paul Brunton
The Autobiography of an Indian Monk, Shri Purohit Swami
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander

Writing the Sacred Journey

Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir

Elizabeth Jarret Andrew

writing-the-sacred-journeyThinking of writing your own story, but not sure where to start? This is surely a treasure trove for any budding, struggling, or thriving memoirist. It’s meticulously researched – both inwardly and outwardly – showing a rich depth of understanding. There is also a refreshingly broad use of the term “spiritual”, beyond the more obvious religious experience, to include any inner quest for meaning through outer life: whether via nature, or the death of a loved one, or even via writing itself. I only wish I’d found this book before I started writing Auspicious Good Fortune!


Revelations of Divine Love

rogier_van_der_weyden_-_portrait_of_a_woman_with_a_winged_bonnetI’m currently reading Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich (1373). Nobody knows Julian’s real name or where she began, and most other details are based on conjecture. But we do know she wrote some of the greatest prose of her time, and was even the first woman to write a book in English (as far as anyone can tell). What fascinates me particularly is that the book opens as a spiritual memoir – a genre very close to my heart.

I confess the above is not a picture of Julian. We don’t know what she looked like, as she doesn’t tell us. There is a modern statue of her at the entrance of Norwich Cathedral, but I can’t picture her so troubled and stony as that. She often uses the word ‘homely’ in her writings, so I see her as plumpish, rosy, and as sanguine as anyone dared to be in those days. This is just a painting by Rogier van der Weyden from around Julian’s time, which Penguin have adopted for their cover. As an unknown Dutch woman, it’s otherwise irrelevant, but it does seem to have a little more about it.

The Church in Julian’s day was far from sanguine, and wasn’t much interested in women’s rights either. It was steeped in national politics, fixated on sin and hell to frighten peasants and keep them subordinate. Only a fifth of men would have been able to read, and far fewer women. Most teaching was received via sermons and paintings in church, so the religious imagery was often gruesome and menacing. Many of the literate were part of the Church, and would thus have used Latin. Heretics were burned at the stake for even reading the Bible in English.

So for a woman to write at all, let alone on religious matters – and in English, the language of the masses – was not only astonishing, but also dangerous. Add the fact that Julian experienced God as an unconditionally loving parent, with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, and it all becomes terribly shocking. God came to her as powerful and omnipotent, but equally as nurturing, reassuring, ‘homely’ and compassionate. She even uses the term ‘meek’ in certain cases.

Until the age of thirty, Julian (whatever her name was then) lived as a laywoman, and was probably from quite a privileged background. She then fell seriously ill. Barely able to see, and with paralysis creeping up her body, she surrendered herself to the seemingly inevitable. A priest was called to administer last rites, and as part of the ritual held a crucifix up to her face. The wooden figure came to life before Julian’s eyes, and there followed a series of vivid and detailed visions, replete with teachings: in words, images and inner realisations. These form the basis of her sixteen Revelations.

From the time of her visions until death in her early seventies, our heroine lived as an anchoress, never leaving the cell attached to her namesake, St Julian’s Church. Her room had no doors, but three windows: one opening onto the church for services, one for supplies and waste, and another facing the street. There she would have met with people from wealthy and lowly backgrounds alike, offering her counsel. No doubt she formed some careful friendships in this way, and her writings thus found a secret audience.

After Julian’s death, the manuscript seemed to disappear, perhaps hiding here and there in wealthy homes and monasteries, but between the Reformation in the 15th Century and the French Revolution in the 18th, many such copies were no doubt destroyed. Mysteriously, at the start of the 20th Century, Grace Warrack came across a copy in the British Library, hand-written by 17th Century nuns. She translated it from its original East Anglian dialect to more modern English, and further modernisations by other editors have followed since.

Many thanks to Bhashini for recommending The Search for the Lost Manuscript – a BBC documentary by Dr Janina Ramirez. But for that, I would probably have never started reading Julian’s works, and would know very little of her history. It’s an amazing wealth of research, compellingly presented.

All shall be well

The more I read, the more the book rings true to me. I even see so many parallels in the modern-day writings of Sri Chinmoy. Initially it was this well-known line which prompted me to read on:

…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

It kept turning in my mind, and I realised how much power it had amidst the struggles and disappointments of daily life, not to mention the constant barrage of devastation one hears in the news. Its context is Julian questioning why sin had to be created in the first place, since everything is made by God.

And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring [of mind] was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

She questions Christ further, troubled by the thought of those who have died as heathens and cannot be saved according to the Church, thus condemned to eternal damnation. In our day I may occupy myself by wondering “without reason and discretion” how we will avoid another Cold War (or a not-so-cold one), or how my country will thrive outside the EU. Either way, whatever seems impossible to us is not so to God.

And as to this I had no other answer in Shewing of our Lord God but this: That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well. Thus I was taught, by the grace of God, that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith as I had aforehand understood, [and] therewith that I should firmly believe that all things shall be well, as our Lord shewed in the same time.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

Precisely because He is all Love and all Goodness, God will never allow mankind to destroy this beautiful world of His. Sleeplessly He tells us to claim His world as our own, and to serve Him in this world by increasing the purity and divinity of our lives….

“We must remember that the Creator is always more powerful than His creation. The Creator can easily influence or change the negative and destructive forces in the world. Our Beloved Supreme could stop a pending nuclear disaster, for example, by changing the mind of the pilot who was about to drop the life-devastating bomb. So we must have faith in our Creator and trust that He will, without fail, do the needful for His creation.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 14

Does sin exist?

One especially radical idea in Julian’s writings is that there is not really any such thing as sin:

But I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor could it be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is His blessed will.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

To me this passage echoes Eastern traditions, summing up the concept of karma. We suffer when we go against the dictates of our soul, when we harm others and destroy goodness in the world. God does not want us to suffer, but often there is no other way for our lower nature to learn and progress. Hell is thus not a physical place necessarily, but a state of consciousness – the result of one’s own mistakes and inner blindness. It is not a permanent state, but an inevitable state in the course of human evolution. In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

To me, sin is a kind of imperfection or ignorance. It is not necessarily something very bad, ugly or untouchable. In the process of evolution we are aiming at perfection, but right now most of us are still wallowing in the pleasures of ignorance and self-indulgence. Each self-indulgent action of ours is a manifestation of our present ignorance. As long as we remain in ignorance, we will do things wrong, we will commit sins. But we must not feel that we are completely lost or covered in darkness. We are just progressing from less light to more light, and ultimately to liberation from ignorance-imperfection-sin.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 30

God and Anger

And notwithstanding all this, I saw soothfastly that our Lord was never wroth, nor ever shall be. For He is God: Good, Life, Truth, Love, Peace; His Clarity and His Unity suffereth Him not to be wroth.… For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

No, God does not get angry. Our way of anger and God’s way of anger are totally different. God’s anger is His divine dispensation. When He sees that His love does not work, then He uses His force.”
– Sri Chinmoy, GSH 143

God and Happiness

All this was shewed in these words: Art thou well pleased? – and by that other word that Christ said: If thou art pleased, then am I pleased;—as if He said: It is joy and satisfying enough to me, and I ask nought else of thee for my travail but that I might well please thee. And in this He brought to mind the property of a glad giver. A glad giver taketh but little heed of the thing that he giveth, but all his desire and all his intent is to please him and solace him to whom he giveth it. And if the receiver take the gift highly and thankfully, then the courteous giver setteth at nought all his cost and all his travail, for joy and delight that he hath pleased and solaced him that he loveth. Plenteously and fully was this shewed.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Is on the top
Of God’s Priority List.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 28115

God’s only Aim
Is to make me happy
And see me happy.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 40104

God will never
Be tired
Of loving me.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 9394

Julian’s Revelations are soothing to the mind and comforting to a heart that recognises the truth in them. I find solace in that line, “…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” because it reminds me of how I feel after a good meditation, when the mind and body are calmed, when action – mental and physical – no longer seem so urgent. One realises how little can actually be solved by doing, and how much by being.


For the Love of Blighty

british-meadowIt was early on a summer Sunday I took myself walking through small enclaves of meadow and marsh, pondering how my love of England has grown as I’ve grown – from the petty resentment and boredom of teenhood where everything disappoints, to the middle of life with twenty years’ spiritual practice behind me. From this point, so much can be seen as rich with promise and inner charm.

Since finding ‘home’ in a spiritual community, not only have I lost the urge to run away (to just about anywhere) from the place where I was born; now there is nowhere else I’d rather be. In the aftermath of recent political friction, my fondness is all the more alive. In a Judgment of Solomon kind of moment, I found myself more heartbroken to witness my country slicing itself in two with vicious argument than I could be by either outcome of a vote – much less the resulting changes in government. Let anyone look after her, so long as she survives (and ideally thrives).

As I passed gorse sitting calmly by clover, the bullrush by bindweed, knapweed nestled by vetch, a poppy beside a purple orchid, and all the unremarkable grasses standing patiently between, I noted how nature finds its own balance. Meadows do not conform to any regulation of size or colour or provenance, yet the result is a carnival of life, ever-new and ever-changing. If weeds can figure things out between themselves, are we quite as clever as we’d like to think?

People from abroad joke about the rain in Blighty, but without it none of this would flourish. Not for everyone these isles with carefully defined (and rarely savage) seasons. This is not a place of high drama in a meteorological sense, or in many senses for that matter. I’m told expats to southern Europe long to spot a cloud in the unbroken blue, and miss staple items such as mists and squalls. I’m told the chocolate we enjoy would be wrong on every level to a Belgian, and his would be wrong to the Swiss. As with confectionery, so with weather (and Marmite, to an even greater extent) – it depends what one considered ‘normal’ in childhood.

Just as I was born in England, have chosen to stay, and have grown to love it incrementally, there are parallels in my life of meditation. Though I was not born to my spiritual path, I’ve always felt it was destined by a higher power than the force of my own tiny and fallible will, as was my country of birth. Every day I’ve chosen to stay, I’ve grown to love it more. Many people never find their place in the world, or when they do are bound by circumstances, fenced off from their dreams. Gazing out at wisps of cloud over a ripening field of grain, split by a railway and bordered by suburban housing, I realise I’m lucky to have the luxury of calling so many things ‘normal’, if not exactly ordinary – from sanitation to meditation.

A visitor to one of our meditation classes last week commented that the music he’d been hearing was all “pretty much of a muchness”. I had to laugh at a frankness so rare in Britain. “I suppose meditation itself is pretty much of a muchness,” I said. On the surface it seems like nothing’s happening, but therein is the potential beginning of everything. When my teacher Sri Chinmoy was young, he lived at an ashram in the south of India. His favourite job was washing dishes, because it required very little input from the mind, leaving him free to meditate. Most people would find the task dull and thankless, but from his meditation was born the life of a champion athlete, a writer, artist, peace dreamer and world server.

We’re fortunate the UK’s turmoil has been mostly administrative, but it does seem like we’re crawling through a tunnel, still peering through the gloom for the light at the end. Our problems are as nothing compared those of most other countries though, and even Blighty has weathered worse. This little tea-drinking, train-spotting, morris-dancing place may not be much, but it’s home.

Hope abides; therefore I abide.
Countless frustrations have not cowed me.
I am still alive, vibrant with life.
The black cloud will disappear,
The morning sun will appear once again
In all its supernal glory.
– Sri Chinmoy, STMS 47


The Real Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

hedgehogOne of the very (very) few German words I know is the one for hedgehog. I don’t remember where or why I learned it, but it stuck in my head because igel sounds like eagle, and there can be no two creatures more dissimilar. In fact there are not many creatures similar to the hedgehog at all.

These curious urchins have been in Britain for 15 million years, yet they’ve been driven to the brink of extinction in recent decades, perhaps soon to topple into obscurity with their erstwhile peers – the woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth tiger.

The culprits? Over-zealous gardeners and developers, scatterers of poisonous slug-pellets and builders of impenetrable fences. I’ve heard from local enthusiasts these pint-sized neighbours will walk 2 miles a night in search of sustenance, and can eat up to their own body weight in food. I’d rather not imagine what that feels like.

My first introduction to the species came shortly before leaving for America, where no such creatures live – the porcupine being but a distant cousin. I was given a tiny bookshelf for my second birthday, holding the complete works of Beatrix Potter in tiny hardback volumes.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle was amongst my favourite characters – along with Squirrel Nutkin, (Mr) Jeremy Fisher, and the stalwart Peter Rabbit. As with many a children’s story in those days, horrid dangerous things happened to the main characters, especially if they’d been naughty. Mrs T, resident of Catbells in Cumbria, was a notable exception. She was far too busy to go about courting mischief.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle 1“Who are you?” said Lucie. “Have you seen my pocket-handkins?”

The little person made a bob-curtsey – “Oh, yes, if you please’m; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; oh, yes if you please’m, I’m an excellent clear-starcher!” And she took something out of a clothes-basket, and spread it on the ironing-blanket.

“What’s that thing?” said Lucie – “that’s not my pocket-handkin?”

“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a little scarlet waist-coat belonging to Cock Robin!”

And she ironed it and folded it, and put it on one side.*

I can tell you for certain you wouldn’t want to trust your clear-starching to a hedgehog, no matter what clear-starching is. When they walk they look as though they’re daintily lifting their hems, but they can smell a slug or worm three inches underground, and are quite happy to dig for it. Their little webbed paws turn into boots of soil, which doesn’t seem to bother them a bit.

How do I know? I’ve recently taken up a new post as part-time stay-at-home daughter – the other part remaining as designer. There is quite a garden to oversee, and I’m woefully inexperienced, but we take a very flexible view of perfection when it comes to the outdoors. This is good practice for a die-hard perfectionist. Nature will, after all, do as she pleases.

And nature may be cruel at times. Blackbirds are my favourite creatures of the air – for their jubilant songs and for their exemplary work ethic. They toil all hours to raise their young this time of year, and it smarts to see the remains of that labour after the sparrowhawk has paid a call. But she has mouths to feed as well. Not everything can thrive – not even one’s favourites – so balance is perhaps the best objective.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle 2Then she took something else off a clothes-horse –

“That isn’t my pinny?” said Lucie.

“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a damask table-cloth belonging to Jenny Wren; look how it’s stained with currant wine! It’s very bad to wash!” said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.

Mrs. Tiggy-winkle’s nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and she fetched another hot iron from the fire.

“There’s one of my pocket-handkins!” cried Lucie – “and there’s my pinny!”

Mrs. Tiggy-winkle ironed it, and goffered it, and shook out the frills.

“Oh that is lovely!” said Lucie.*

Since we have our hearts set on growing greens, fruits and flowers, we face a moral dilemma. I could not physically kill a slug, and nor would I want to, but there is little point growing food and effectively handing it out as alms to the slug population. Anything within reasonable reach is considered a free buffet by these ill-mannered gatecrashers.

We have everything in pots with awkward rims, covered in petroleum jelly and tied round the top with copper taping. Anyone bold enough to traverse the gravel will then be faced with a gastropodic obstacle course.

Which, I’m assured by gardeners more seasoned than myself, is not enough. So, not wanting to get our hands dirty with actual murder, we’ve hired a mercenary.

Her terms are quite particular. She wants a low dwelling with a front door facing a wall or fence in a quiet and rustic corner of the garden. She wants free access to surrounding properties (ideally four additional). She wants fresh rainwater and a little food provided daily – though not bread and milk as people tend to assume. Since she is carnivorous, I leave that side of things to my mother.

I say she as we assume this is the ‘sow’, and her occasional visitor is a roaming ‘boar’, though it’s hard to tell them apart in their country fashions. We’re hoping for an ‘array’ come summertime, though that term rather conjures up carpet samples, or gloves in a department store display, than a litter of blind and spineless offspring.

It’s best not to count one’s chickens, or hoglets in this case, but our little harvest is so far flourishing. Spinach is happily billowing out its big green sails, rocket is shooting sunwards and chard is champing at the bit. Even young delphiniums – apparently a delicious item on any buffet menu – remain untouched by mollusc mouths.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle 3“And what are those long yellow things with fingers like gloves?”

“Oh, that’s a pair of stockings belonging to Sally Henny-penny – look how she’s worn the heels out with scratching in the yard! She’ll very soon go barefoot!“ said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.

“Why, there’s another handkersniff – but it isn’t mine; it’s red?“

“Oh no, if you please’m; that one belongs to old Mrs. Rabbit; and it did so smell of onions! I’ve had to wash it separately, I can’t get out the smell.”*

While building the ‘house’, I petitioned my mother not to tell my friends how I spent the weekend, lest they thought I’d lost my marbles permanently. I could be seen weaving lengths of purple dogwood into a wire frame – quite feverishly, before it turned too brittle to use, or too thick to fell in the first place.

How much care went into that little home, how many planning meetings passed, and how many minor injuries were sustained in its construction. We double insulated with bubblewrap and lined it with plastic for the wetter months. We hewed out a back door for deliveries, and fitted CCTV (for our own entertainment more than for her security). We stopped short of washing lines and clothes horses.

Since my early introduction to Mrs T, I’ve always had the sense of hedgehogs being too absorbed in their own service to seek out trouble or to meddle in other people’s affairs. Just so, it seems the real Mrs T is proving an asset to her community.

I find myself wondering what quality Sri Chinmoy would have assigned to the humble hedgehog. In his book Animal Kingdom, we find the duck symbolises discrimination, the buffalo wisdom, the rabbit sincerity, the jackal roguishness, and tortoise immortality. The eagle is vision, but the igel is not listed. Were the post of service not already filled by the squirrel, that would have been my best guess, but whatever the answer, no doubt it would have been a great surprise.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle 4She was running running running up the hill – and where was her white frilled cap? and her shawl? and her gown – and her petticoat?

And how small she had grown – and how brown – and covered with PRICKLES!

Why! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.*


Horton and the Perils of Horticulture

plantsDo little people still read Dr Seuss nowadays, or am I showing my age? I loved taking time in those imagined worlds of the Cat in the Hat, Fox in Socks, Green Eggs and Ham – where everyone talks in rhyming couplets and looks a bit fuzzy round the edges. Such eccentricity is comforting to a child.

One story was far from reassuring though: Horton Hears a Who! Do you know it? Our hero – an elephant in this case – finds a speck of dust emitting a sound, and discovers an entire community living on its surface, complete with microscopic houses, shops and judicial system. Horton faces all manner of ridicule and physical hardship to save the speck from danger.

The moral of the story is: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” No doubt it’s designed to teach children empathy and consideration, but it only served to keep me awake at night. It burdened my shoulders with far more responsibility than they could carry. On one page the speck is lost in a cavernous valley of clover, where every bloom looks the same. The image boggled my mind with potential disaster.

Later in childhood one of my many dreams was to grow a meadow full of English wild flowers. I knew that was a silly fantasy, especially when England is so densely farmed and populated. Unused land is a vast extravagance, even for people much more wealthy than we were. I became infatuated with the idea of English herbs instead, and often lost myself in The Complete Herbal of Nicholas Culpeper.

The characteristics and uses of each plant had been diligently documented, accompanied by line drawings. Culpeper’s devotion to nature enchanted me. It seemed God had already provided remedies for all the common ailments of body and mind – we only need seek them out. At home I was allotted a rockery of about 2 metres square and soon began my first herb garden. I was proud beyond measure.

But perhaps haunted by memories of Horton, I found gardening was not so straightforward. At school I learned that a cubic metre of soil can house 30 to 300 earthworms, and millions of microscopic organisms besides. I didn’t want to find myself guilty of separating families, demolishing schools or spoiling valuable food stores, let alone maiming or beheading anyone with my trowel. The fear was paralysing, and I soon had to retire.

I like to believe there’s a big difference between still living with my Mum in my forties, and living with my Mum again in my forties. Either way, I’m back in the same house with the rockery, but now with rather more responsibility for the rest of the garden too. I find myself in a world of rain gauges, bird feeders and water butts, with access to an ordnance of hoes, forks, rakes and shovels. I find myself pruning roses, toting a leaf-blower and researching compost aerators.

Maybe I’m showing my age again but I’ve long hankered after a council allotment for growing leafy greens and flowers, and there is now much more than that at my disposal. Whilst digging, raking or sweeping, I waste a lot of time apologising to worms, or suggesting to spiders that they hurry along before I change my mind. But since taking what I consider a more balanced approach to horticulture, I am at least no longer paralysed.

* * *

I recently read Kafka’s Metamorphosis – it seemed about time I did – and was mesmerised by his study of human nature, whether in a human body or that of an insect. While it’s best not talk to me about beached whales or the awful things humans do to one another on the news, I wouldn’t usually cry at the death of a cockroach. My tears were a testament to Kafka’s genius.

Where does one draw the line though, philosophically?

One could say at the border of sentience, but that’s difficult to discern, especially on a moment-to-moment basis. And everything is part of God after all – yea even the slugs and microbes. Perhaps intention is easier to gauge. I  would not hurt a fly deliberately, but neither would I mourn its loss – in fact I’d probably congratulate it on completing a difficult incarnation.

A Buddhist or a Jain would no doubt give an excellent answer, and I’d be interested to hear it. For now here’s an answer from Sri Chinmoy, since his are the teachings I follow:

“I always say that only divine action leads us to God and not the so-called good action or bad action of the moral life. That does not mean we should become immoral. Far from it! But sometimes we give too much importance to morality. Let us say that while walking a person looks around to see if there is an ant, a worm or an insect on his path. If he sees any tiny creature, then he stops in order to avoid killing it; he won’t move even though there is somebody waiting for him and he is supposed to go straight toward his goal. But he does not consider that every time he breathes in, so many insects and little creatures are destroyed.

Everybody stays on earth through the sacrifice of somebody else. God makes a sacrifice for all of us and that is why we live on earth. God’s action is the divine action. God has asked us to breathe in; He has commanded us. Out of moral action if we stop breathing and die, just because we will destroy some of the little creatures, this is very far from God’s intention. So this is karma. But the wisdom that comes from the heart tells us that God wants us to stay on earth and that He is inside us; He is inside those things that are being destroyed by us. If God Himself is in these creatures, then naturally nothing is being destroyed. God Himself is there. So we have to know which is divine action and which is our so-called good and moral action. Good action and moral action are totally different from divine action.”

– Sri Chinmoy, SGGB 16

Horton is now a distant memory. Let alone herbs, we have extravagant plans for peas and beans, spinach, chard and rocket come springtime. We must eat, after all, as well as breathing.


The Eighth Colour of the Rainbow

sicilyI was once engaged in a rather challenging design job, but one that turned out quite instructive. The client had set up a new business and needed a brand identity. She was very particular about the colour scheme, yet she was not sure exactly what those colours were. They had been seen through her eyes on a visit to Bangladesh.

“The colours there are more colourful than anywhere,” she told me. Indeed, I could see from the photographs they were as lively as jewels in the sun, or sweets in a confectioner’s window, and just as varied. She spoke as though these were not hues we could readily get in Europe, let alone trapping them on a website palette, or tethering them to the corner of a business card. It was as though she sought the eighth colour of the rainbow.

At first I wondered if it was some quality of light in that region, or perhaps a luminescent chemical in the paint, but looking again I soon realised the secret: clever use of contrast. From a mass-produced Bollywood poster to the hand-finished housing of a rickshaw, that magic was employed to the furthest extremes. Such palettes break all rules, and ought not to work at all.

The illusion is an old device, but in Bangladesh it’s apparently used with courage and gusto. Artists there clearly don’t pick complementary shades from a colour wheel; they place the circus and the festival against a ground of storm clouds and army fatigues. Yellow on grey, turquoise on beige, pink on khaki: just so, the eighth colour of the rainbow is revealed.

* * *

I’m reminded of this episode several years on, looking out to a January sun as it dances gold on a petrol blue Mediterranean. Suffice to say I did not find 2015 the easiest of years. It’s been a time of loss, of uprooting and unsettlement, and I’m the sort who needs a lot of bandwidth for assimilation.

I always try and take a short retreat in winter with the Sri Chinmoy Centre. These Christmas Trips have always been a significant source of inspiration for me, but this time the contrast is extreme. To set aside my battle fatigues, to step out of the storm and onto the coast of Sicily, is a change I cannot quite take in.

Out here on the edge of nowhere, the light sets and rises unencumbered over the sea, making all manner of palettes that strictly speaking ought not to work. And yet God the Master Artist dares it, leaving me wordless. The sea itself is entirely unassertive, even letting little silvery fish browse right up to the shore in its clean waters.

I may never again see an olive grove in moonlight. The grey trunks are twisted up like newspaper in a giant’s hand, the boughs and branches tousled with dark leaves. They glow a ghostly silver, their tops blown flat in the coastal wind. On into some vague velvet infinity the pattern of repeats itself. The moon looks on all the while wise and consoling, trailed by a radiant host of stars.

It was up into those stars we launched sky lanterns at the dawn of a new year, two by two unfurling the white paper, four hands spreading each one tall. Each flame caught the weight and its warmth billowed. With a soft rustle, a joint prayer, a silent promise, each vessel left our reaching fingers and gained the air. It was there I let my troubles go. I breathed the cold black sky, then felt a hope kindling, rising, glowing anew.

* * *

People ask me, “What do you do there?” and I’m stuck for an answer. We do everything and nothing. We sit in quietude, we sing for God with one another, we make each other laugh with stories, we run and play and eat together. We eat, yes, we eat again: cakes, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream on balmy balconies while gazing out to sea. It’s a time of reflection and restoration. It’s on these trips that I remember who I am.

On my last night I arrive early for the evening function to find a group in meditation before reciting poems, while someone is rehearsing Pinocchio with a long rubber nose, another a monkey behind a tree; another pair a hat and cane routine, another pair play ocarina and violin; another pair play banjo and charango while others add words to their folk song.

I smile almost to laughing. These are my people; this is my life. Wherever we find ourselves each year, this harbour of friendliness always feels like home. I sit in a corner and breathe it in, print it on my heart and mind for later when I’m back in the drab shades of winter. I trust the eighth colour of the rainbow will come back to me then.


Full Steam Ahead

iStock_000023835416_Large“Mind if I wait here?” asked an unfamiliar man I’d seen walking ahead down the alley, stopping by the mews where I live.

“Not at all,” I laughed, “you’re welcome. We’re used to it.”

He didn’t look like the usual audience – none of the backpack, notebook or flask of tea about him, but tailored coat, three-piece suit, polished shoes. I suppose he’d been to the races.

“Just on my way back south. My son told me this is a good spot.”

“It should be, specially since the railway pulled down that wall.” I pointed to the sad stump of a Victorian original that had buckled with age and turned dangerous.

“They did right,” he said, and from his standpoint that was clearly so, though I doubt “they” had in mind his wishes, any more than those of local residents. We’d have chosen reconstruction over demolition, but I suppose every cloud has a lining of some sort.

“Enjoy it,” I said, and turned homewards.

“I will,” he grinned back, “haven’t seen this one for 45 years. Here it is now if you’re interested.”

I’d had a long day, but however odd it felt to stand in the dark with a stranger and to stare between barbed steel pickets into further darkness, to walk away seemed ungracious. 45 years is the span of my life thus far, so I could imagine how it might be to wait that long.

For a moment I shared in his suspense. Maybe he felt as an explorer on the brink of discovery, or like David Attenborough staking out a lion. For me, while such sightings are not an everyday event, in the holidays they’re common enough. I can watch from the ease of my kitchen through a gap in neighbouring garages.

You can tell one’s coming by the steady roar, or the slow huffing from a standstill, then the play of metal on metal. With all the workings exposed, the wheels give out an honest and percussive rhythm. A driver then appears at the open cab in cloth cap and overalls, trailing a great billowing cumulus behind that muffles the edges of the present day.

Fuel bunker and coaches alike are enamelled in deep burgundy, hand-edged in yellow. Through passenger windows are table lamps and lace and inquisitive faces. Who can deny there’s a timeless magic in steam trains. They arrive as though from a dream of childlike innocence. They could almost promise you Hogwarts or Narnia, or anywhere you wanted.

His son was right, and I’d never seen it from that angle. The line of track curved towards us, bypassing the station. A long white plume first broke up the darkness, then the engine’s round face grew fuller as it started banking southwards. The ground trembled with its labours. Had we seats, they would have been the best in the house.

Among my favourite sounds in the world is the whistle of a steam engine – the loudest yet gentlest warning I know. It’s enormous. It gets you right in the chest. If not for the rumble of the city it could be heard for miles around. I’m quite sure drivers sound it for sport, as the driver did that evening. It rose in a giant column of happy music, perfectly timed – or so it seemed.

Then in came the 18:52 from London King’s Cross, slowing obediently for arrival, pulling ten coaches behind it and effectively pulling a curtain on our performance before it began: lipstick red alternating with concrete grey, emblazoned with logos and slogans, seat information and safety warnings. Yellow light surged from long communal windows.

I could almost smell the stale coffee inside, the air leeched of all its freshness. I saw before my mind’s eye a litter of newspapers and food wrappers, the sad trundling of a refreshments trolley, the scratchy fabric on seats, passengers gazing into the glare of laptops, tablets and phones.

As coach K finally passed us, so our last burgundy carriage was swallowed by the night, leaving behind it only a wisp of white and a coal-smoke fragrance on the air.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and meant it. Not that it was my fault, but somehow I felt we’d failed in our hospitality, and there was no way to make it up to him.

“Well,” he answered, “that’s that,” and looked into the space now empty.

“Maybe next time,” I offered hopefully.

“Maybe. Thanks.” He gave a short gruff laugh, devoid of humour. I turned to leave him with his thoughts.

Since then I’ve heard that steam route has been discontinued, as the railway has safety concerns. I wonder if he had more luck on the horses that day.

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I catch the train to London quite often. It’s a good service and very convenient. I’m all for safety on the railways, and anywhere for that matter.

But the contrast between the two – ancient and modern, jolly and efficient, beautiful and functional – seemed almost ridiculously stark, rather like that of the heart and mind. While I wouldn’t be without it overall, the mind is a slave to its own limitations, annoyingly bound by routines and restrictions of its very own making. It has a knack of spoiling things.

That incident reminded me of certain times I’ve sat down to meditate. The phone’s switched off, the candle is lit, the fragrance of incense is rising on the air, perhaps some meditative music is playing. All is still, inwardly and outwardly.

Then thoughts come, with a powerful illusion of their own significance: the email I forgot to send, the things I need to buy tomorrow, other things I need to clean, arrange, create or deliver before the week is out. Suddenly I may as well be in a stuffy commuter carriage – computer screen, scratchy seats and all – while endless security announcements sound through the tannoy, along with a list of upcoming stations and an inventory of unappealing items from the buffet-car menu.

How all the mundane, tedious aspects of human life – important in their own way – can fetter the wings of meditation. Just so, mind-manufactured doubts about one’s own ability, concern for the opinions of others, fear of failure, (and so on, ad infinitum), can blindside inspiration. The heart is meanwhile tireless in its simplicity and spontaneity.

That is where the analogy ends, fortunately. Unlike the stranger in the alleyway, if I struggle one evening to quiet my thoughts, feeling I’ve had a fairly worthless meditation, I can say with genuine hope: maybe next time, maybe next morning rather than after 45 years or never again. I trust another chance, another heart-powered rather than steam-powered inspiration, will come along soon.

* * *

Today is the 40th anniversary of Sri Chinmoy‘s Transcendence-Perfection – a series of 843 aphoristic poems, all written within a 24-hour period. I find this one especially relevant here:

Each new day
Is a gift.

Each new day
Is opportunity’s revelation-sky.

Each new day
Is reality’s manifestation-sun.

– Sri Chinmoy, TP 377



Notre-Dame des NeigesWere I to set more store by the zodiac, I’d blame it on a Cancerian date of birth. Perhaps it has more to do with past-life experience, or maybe it’s just one of those things. Either way, the fact remains: my thoughts about leaving the house generally range from ambivalence to reluctance.

I use the word house loosely, as it is neither manor nor cottage, nor even a town maisonette, but a single room by a railway line. I fancy I could live quite well somewhere as an anchoress, so long as there’d be Wi-Fi, and deliveries posted through a hatch in the wall. The only other concession might be a little patch of garden. A kettle. A heated towel rail. I wouldn’t ask for much.

What could impel me then to squash bedding and four days’ clothing into an improbably tiny cabin bag? What could induce me to share a room for five where mounting (and especially dismounting) a bunk will require the strangest contortions? What could draw me to the cattle-truck confines of a budget airline, not knowing where my next good cup of tea will come from?

“Joy Days, Joy Days! Nothing gives me as much joy as Joy Days. When my children meet together to pray, meditate and play, they feed their souls, they feed their hearts, they feed their physical existence. What else do they need?”
– Sri Chinmoy, The Temple and the Shrine

Reaching the Pyrenees meant an overnight in Lourdes – two trains, a bus, a brief hotel, another bus, plane and cab away from my northern English home. Though life has brought me almost no experience of Christianity, I felt a kind of kinship with my fellow passengers – most of them clearly pilgrims, and in various states of health. I’ve waited in many an airport queue to have my tickets inspected, my bags rummaged and my person scanned for weapons. Never have I seen a queue so cheerful, so calm or polite than the one for Lourdes.

At Lourdes we would be three, and could make a small adventure between us. Although it rained prolifically, doggedly – one could almost say spitefully at times – everything but our enthusiasm was dampened. I was struck by how real and recent was the life of Saint Bernadette. I think of saints as trapped in medieval carvings or unlikely illustrations, their humanness censored and their stature extended out of all proportion. How is one then to separate miracles from the vagaries of imagination?

Like Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernadette Soubirous was alive in the late 19th Century. She has photographs. I have seen her little wooden shoe behind glass, the dress she embroidered, letters she wrote home to her brother from the convent in Nevers. I’ve stood inside le cachot – the dungeon – where she lived in poverty with her family at the time of the visions. I’ve looked on the very bed where she slept.

While the countless gift shops are rather too gaudy and sentimental for my taste, the atmosphere at Lourdes is distinctly numinous. It also has particular qualities one might call feminine. That which is pure, gentle and nurturing is often overlooked in the West, written off as trivial or weak. I wonder, is that why God chose a simple girl of 14 to receive the visions, and specifically visions of a young Virgin Mary?

There was to be a military parade in the town that weekend, soldiers from many countries convening for services, marching the streets in elaborate uniforms, marking time with drums and shiny brass instruments. While that seemed to me rather incongruous, I suppose the chance arrival of the Peace Run seemed to them equally so! We could not light our torch, but unfurled our banner all the same, and processed to the sacred grotto for prayers and pictures.

Queuing for water in the rain may sound pointless, but it was the only way to drink from the spring that appeared at the feet of Bernadette. Families waited with us under capes and umbrellas, chattering in various languages, filling anything from their hands to glass phials and plastic gallons. Lourdes may not be an outwardly peaceful place, but inwardly, yes, and a happy place too. I was often reminded of our own gatherings in New York. Time slows down. The boundaries between people are softer than usual.

What was once a rubbish dump is now a shrine, trailed with vines and wild roses. One can pass by the edges of the cave and touch its surface. Long candles of white and blue blaze at the entrance, and thousands more wait their turn on covered tables, imbued with the prayers of those who offered them. The enormous basilica of grey stone grows as though from out of the rocks. The river Gave churns and tumbles beside it, all milky molten turquoise.

* * *

Our true destination was Gavarnie – its falls forming the source of that very river. Sri Chinmoy encouraged a special bond between our French and British Centres, and asked that we all meet four times a year for Joy Days. We may do the same things each time – meditating, singing, playing games, sharing meals, news and inspiration – but each brings a new experience.

After a languorous breakfast, most of us walked. Some of us ran. Even from the window of our gîte, I struggled to take in the scene. First there was the fat green of the ground, acres of open meadow, each blade in its Sunday best, the leaves and needles of trees outgrowing their winter jackets to stretch out bare and shiny.

But up there, where there would be sky, was an amphitheatre of limestone, dark and ruckled, draped in snow, crested in ice, coddled in cottonwool clouds. And drawn down the middle as though in dusty chalk, La Grande Cascade, the highest waterfall in all of France. Only then came the canopy of violet blue, and a very buoyant sun.

The warm air rang with birdsong. Butterflies were at their leisure, playing tag on the breezes – black, white, orange, yellow. Even ants and flies and beetles looked well fed. Bees were just as comfortably off, surveying their estates and muttering approval – blue gentians and purple orchids, too brilliant for the focus of human eyes.

The scent of pine in cool arbours. The scent of earth in sunlight. Trails were dotted with seasoned hikers and Sunday ramblers, tracking the river upstream to its source. Giant raptors wheeled above in their dozens – vultures or eagles, too high to tell. Below, each crevice spilled with melting snow and white noise. It chuckled and funnelled into pools sheer as glass, then drove recklessly on, crashing and overtaking itself, ecstatic to be free of mountain stone at last.

Whoever thought to build a hotel so high? That meant a cup of tea. A good cup of tea, and all the better for climbing. We talked of concerts, classes, other Joy Days past and yet to come. We stared into the splendour and said nothing at all – that comfortable silence enjoyed only in the best of company. The more intrepid clambered over a moonscape to the snows and the falls. Donkeys lumbered up the slope to be tethered by the grass, so their little passengers could shout and run and drink soda.

In time we ambled back to the village, ate bowls of ice cream made of local berries, and sat amongst the meadow flowers listening to cuckoos. We drove to Luz-Saint-Sauveur for galettes with native cheeses and crêpes with sweet marrons, then scrambled into our bunks to read, welcoming the sudden sleep that follows a day in mountain air.

Most left next morning with the Peace Run, and there were three of us again. We met nobody on our walk that day, save the birds, butterflies, and Notre-Dame des Neiges – Our Lady of the Snows. Her statue towers over Gavarnie, holding the child Jesus aloft as he blesses all beneath. Warmth, purity, gentleness against a rugged, icy backdrop.

All was silent but the wind across the peaks. The feminine aspect of the divine again celebrated for its subtle yet powerful grace. Absorbed in her devotion, Notre-Dame is at once perfectly vulnerable and perfectly invulnerable. In the words of Bernadette, “One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them.” [Source]

Driving to Lourdes I realise I’m not ready to go back home. Strange for a would-be anchoress. These days have surely fed the soul, fed the heart, fed the physical existence. What else do I need?


519ZBA8YGVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This adventure inspired me to find out more about Saint Bernadette. If you’re ever interested in doing the same, I highly recommend Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous in Her Own Words, by René Laurentin. This is a real treasure, meticulously researched and carefully presented. Laurentin has endeavoured to stand back and let Saint Bernadette speak for herself as much as possible. At first glance this seems like a rather hefty textbook, but Bernadette comes to life so clearly in the pages, the result is enthralling. She feels accessible not only through the relative recency of her life (1844-1879), but also through her very human struggles, her simple background and her pragmatic nature. I had trouble putting this book down.


Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

old-booksDo you remember believing that adults know everything? One believes a lot of silly things as a child, and perhaps a lot of sensible things that ought to be remembered.

Statistically speaking, I am over halfway through this life. The longer I live, the less I seem to know, but the less it seems to matter. Take times tables, for example. Some people have a knack for ball sports, and some for line drawings. In either case there’s a certain amount of progress to be made through practice, but essentially you either have it or you don’t. Quite so with mental arithmetic.

In my day, it was implied that without an intimate knowledge of The Tables, one would be cast out of society, or remain unemployed at the very least – as though an interviewer might do a spot check, and could not be trusted to choose one of the friendlier numbers. With tens, fives, twos, most of the elevens and threes, I could get by. Fours would be pushing it, and anything else would be disastrous.

“You can’t carry a calculator around with you everywhere,” the teachers would say. That was a valid point in the seventies, when calculators were the weight of roof tiles, with buttons the size of postage stamps. True, sometimes I’ll be asked what six nines are, or eight sevens, but clearly only because the person asking has forgotten, so I dare admit I haven’t the faintest idea. Not knowing the time of day can be swiftly remedied by taking out a smartphone. So also the gaps in my times tables can be bridged at will.

We surely live in a fortunate age. Information can be gleaned or shared quickly when necessary, but analog methods are still open to us. One only need type a word into a box for its past and present to be revealed in more detail than is even necessary. Arguably that’s progress, at least in a sense. I don’t look back entirely fondly on history, but I do also fear losing its values. Given a reasonable choice I’ll still read from a printed book. There can be no virtual substitute for the whisper of a page turning, the scent of paper, the weight in the hand.

A friend recently got me hooked on Cadfael – a fictional medieval monk with a talent for solving crimes. One story surrounds the value of books in the 1100s. There was no paper as such, but only vellum, painstakingly fashioned from animal skins. Messages were thus rarely written down. Instead they were learned and repeated by couriers on horseback or foot. To read was a great privilege in itself, and to write yet more so. An illustrated book could be a work of art so priceless a person may literally kill to own it. (Or may not in a given case – let us have no spoilers here).

When I was growing up, our most valuable reading matter was the encyclopaedia. Probably it was sold to my parents by a travelling salesman who knocked on the door. What pressure must have been on that generation to retain as much information as possible! You either knew a thing or you didn’t. There was no finding out without the encyclopaedia, or a trip to the library. Even then, to unearth the right book might need assistance from expert librarians with microfiches.

The encyclopaedia had a finality and a gravity to it, partly as a single volume could only just be lifted with two small hands. It had the peculiar aroma of must and almond sweetness that books acquire in time. The covers were of black faux-leather, hard and scaly to touch. Opening a volume was like opening a small tomb where a fading past was buried. It was approached with almost funereal reverence.

Mars could properly be found in the same book as marsupials, mollusks and Monroe, Marilyn. Babylonia was correctly filed with Beethoven and the bubonic plague. If certain people became important, or significant things were suddenly discovered, they would have to wait for the yearbook. Over time, the neat order and classification would thus be increasingly disturbed. I found that disturbing. The all-knowing encyclopaedia was, by its very nature, incomplete and out of date.

I suspected I’d need to absorb all the contents of that collection on the long journey to adulthood, so as to arrive equipped for anything. Who knew when I might need to distinguish between a freshwater perch and a pike, demonstrate semaphore and sailing knots, or identify the flags of Tanzania and Mozambique. But there was plenty of time for that.

Meanwhile I would dwell mostly on the anatomy sections, as they had more than their share of coloured plates. There were leaves of transparent paper that stuck to the fingers, displaying layers of the body from skin to skeleton. I imagined turning back my own skin like the page of a book, to find tendons and muscles, impressive arteries and bones with funny names written next to them.

Nowadays I have little space for keeping books, and usually pass them on once finished. Sri Chinmoy‘s writings are the exception, though I only own a fraction of those printed. My favourites are the Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees. Naturally I will always wish there were more of them – as with any of Sri Chinmoy’s creations – but that’s just human greed. Actually there is more instruction, illumination, inspiration in a single volume than one could need in a lifetime.

In a sense, I even like the fact that the series is “unfinished” – a sort of ellipsis leading to timelessness, at the end of the fiftieth book. The poems are eternally relevant, so there can be no real beginning or ending to them anyway. On the surface they may be simple – a single one might take a moment to comprehend mentally, and to learn by heart a little longer – but to live its essence authentically is another matter, and therein of course is its highest value.

Sometimes I read a volume in sequence, but more often I open one at random. Turning each page is like turning back layers of spiritual anatomy. I recognise doubt, pride, insecurity, as I know my own skin, blood and bone. Aspects of human ignorance are peeled away further to reveal their transcendent solutions. These are in turn strict and consoling, forthright and comforting, sometimes humorous and others almost melancholic in their understanding of human struggles. Always they are fresh and lively.

Probably I will never know my times tables, and presumably will not be able to identify all the flags of the world in this lifetime. Inner wisdom is not even so easily won as outer knowledge, but spiritually speaking it is far more practical. Sri Chinmoy returns to this theme many times in the series itself:

Knows nothing
About God.

Finally bow
To the wisdom-sun.

My spirituality rises
Not on the horizon
Of my knowledge-might
But on the horizon
Of my wisdom-light.

Knowledge has
A very short breath.
Wisdom has
Eternity’s Breath.

Is limited strength.
Is unlimited power.

The outer knowledge is
The inner knowledge is

The choice of illumining wisdom
We must make,
And not the choice of precise knowledge.

All poems by Sri Chinmoy, from Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees