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:
- Speak up
- 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.
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.