Archive | Memoirs

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


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.


Newness and Astrology

iStock_000021751066_LargeWhile Chinese New Year (Red Fire Monkey) is not until Monday, in my little corner of the globe it seems there’s already a lot of newness.

My family is in the midst of an almighty clear-out. There’s nothing like the buzz of giving things away, especially to people who even recognise what they are and thus how they could be useful. Not being the hoarding type, I’ve also found our countless trips to the council tip liberating, thrilling and strangely moreish. To me material objects use up mental energy that is – on the whole – unwarranted.

Out with the frayed electrical cables and the chest of drawers from when I was six. Out with the multiple hand saws and dismembered lengths of hose. Off with the overflow refrigerator, and with anything qualified by “in case”. We’ve made piles of things for keeping, but not necessarily those with the highest resale value. This little stack of school reports from the 70s and 80s has already given back to us generously in terms of amusement.

While I was chucking some broken something into a skip last week, a neighbour called out, “Morning, Sarah!” I glanced over my shoulder only to realise she was addressing one of my former selves. Such things are bound to happen around the parental home. Sarah was a name used mostly by teachers, the dentist, and my folks when they were cross. This is the name I see now in handwriting that used to be my own, at the top of example essays and exercises. It’s a curious and almost creepy sensation to read something one has obviously written, when one has no recollection of writing it.

These pages bring back clear memories of the time though, and I’m struck anew by how my world has changed since then. Adulthood and the advent of IT bring with them new fetters as well as new freedoms. Naturally we had no computers, smartphones or video games when I was small. I rode actual horses and fashioned tangible things out of knitting yarn. I did jigsaws, drew pictures, played cards (with real cards), and wanted for nothing more.

What strikes me most is the accuracy with which long-forgotten teachers describe my current nature. In my exercises there’s an obvious progression from the spidery copperplate I learned in America to a hand more rounded and efficient, from pencil to cartridge pen, from broad to narrow feint. Yet certain traits of character have remained almost untouched by time. That’s a bit spooky too.

Reading and writing came to me quite tamely, but the third R was wild and chary of me. Anything involving plimsolls and gym shorts I considered abhorrent and wholly unnecessary. Mixing with others outside of class gripped me with the sort of nerves one ought to feel only before a driving test or a surgical procedure. In group photos I have a scolded, guilty look – as though I’d just set fire to the gym store. Really it wouldn’t have occurred to me even to chew gum in the classroom.

In truth there has been considerable progress, but it hasn’t come about of its own accord. It’s as though my stars have somehow wheeled and hauled themselves into a new configuration, and I’m very glad of that. This least sporty of girls has done a couple of marathons. The girl who likes her own company has good friends nonetheless. She can’t face public speaking, but at least enjoys good conversation. Some stars have stayed in place: I’ll gladly devour a book, but can’t do sums under pressure. I’ve never set fire to a gym store (though it possibly crossed my mind).

Do you believe in astrology? I was never sure if I did or not. I had a sense there was something about it, but took it with a pinch of salt. That a horoscope could predict one’s basic character – perhaps even a few significant events – didn’t seem outlandish, but I found the thought of anything being set in stone depressing. Such an approach doesn’t account for the free will I’m certain God affords us – the incentive to use whatever capacity we have to improve (or diminish) our lot.

This excerpt from Sri Chinmoy’s writings makes sense of it all to me now. Certain aspects of one’s nature may evolve in the everyday process of living. But I know the most significant changes have taken place for me since I’ve been seeking a more spiritual meaning to life, and – in line with that – since I’ve grown more faith in myself.

In most cases, when it is carefully and scientifically done, astrology is absolutely correct for ordinary people who have no faith in God or in themselves.

But if people have faith in themselves, with this faith they can transcend astrology. That is why we say that faith changes things by an unchanging will. If we have an unchanging will, fate can be changed. True, all our past deeds are recorded in the stars. But if we want to obliterate fate, it is like obliterating something on a tape recorder. I say something and it is recorded, but if I want to erase it, I can.

Astrology is one hundred per cent correct when one is totally in the physical world and is living an ordinary human life. When one enters into the inner life, the spiritual life, it is sixty or seventy per cent correct. If the aspirant is in touch consciously or unconsciously with his inner being, and if his inner being is constantly in touch with the Source, there will be many, many bad things that he can avoid. Finally, when one is consciously in communion with God, astrology does not function at all for that person, because everything in his life comes directly from God. True oneness with God is far beyond astrology.”

– Sri Chinmoy, ASB 1

Sri Chinmoy used to give a New Year’s Message every autumn. I still miss it now, eight years after his passing. In it he gave spiritual predictions and warnings – qualities to invoke and things to be wary of. Nowadays I try to meditate on which things to nurture, which to cultivate and which to avoid. Whether one is clearing outer or inner clutter, the start of a new year certainly has its own power and momentum. Godspeed to you!


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


The Mythology of Mistakes

iStock_000045144952_LargeDo you ever stop to think what an achievement it is that you and I – metaphorically or metaphysically – are sitting here? Do you ever wonder that we’ve come this far? Perhaps you do. Perhaps I ought to do more often. I tend to think only of how far there is to go.

Maybe you live in a state of more serenity, but I confess to having rather too many thoughts. Some are useful: There’s enough milk for breakfast. Some are harmless: The blackened cobweb waving in the ceiling is a little too high to reach. Others are just irritating: The harsh tone of voice, did it mean more than the words? Or not? Was it justified?

My particular talent – one I’ve spent a lifetime perfecting – is dwelling on my own mistakes. I see it as one of the clearest marks of God’s Compassion that memory cannot usually reach back further than a lifetime. Imagine the weight of mistakes then, not to mention the injustices, the accidents, illnesses and grisly deaths. No, maybe don’t imagine. My point is that I forget there have been earlier chapters at all in my soul’s epic existence, rather than merely forgetting the plots and characters of the saga.

As I understand, we arrived on the earth plane at one point or another, a very long time ago – you perhaps as a ball of flint, and I as a grain of gravel in some alluvial deposit, baking in the sun or slushing about in the rain with other grains of gravel. I suppose our souls were jolly proud to be playing a part, though there was no question of doing a good job, and the concept of mistakes or even of time had not yet arisen for us.

I wonder how it must have been to grow at all then, having never experienced it – as a blade of grass, a cactus, a crocus, an oak breaking the acorn in darkness, breaching the earth with its long green neck to reach the light at last. Imagine first growing wings as a midge or a moth, the sudden freedom to follow instincts on the air – however base and vacuous – then as a bee, with all its subtle codes of language and etiquette.

What of all the sea creatures and river dwellers – the quick and vicious, the flabby and innocuous, the graceful, benevolent and beautiful? What of the avian, reptilian, mammalian lives we’ve known? How often we must have succumbed to the will of the weather or to our neighbours’ hunger, not surviving beyond the egg, beyond the nest, beyond the ice floe or the carpet of a forest floor.

But eventually we did, or at least we must have done. Clothed in fur or feathers we returned to watch the world and to learn our part in it. While that’s Grace, certainly, we did at least participate – to the extent not only of human life, but also of spiritual consciousness, however limited. We’re certain to have made countless mistakes in the process, but does that make it any less astonishing? In an age that gauges success and failure in fairly absolute terms, I find it worth remembering.

According to science, the Creator must have been especially fascinated by dinosaurs. 165 million years He worked on them, played with them, honed them and finally extinguished them. I shan’t hazard a guess as to what that was all about, but I suppose no amount of time seems long to Him. That’s probably for the best when dealing with human evolution. Somebody once asked Sri Chinmoy what happened when dinosaurs became extinct – whether or not their souls are now living a human existence. His answer came as follows:

Some souls did not want to take any more incarnations; they did not want to make progress on the earth-planet. So they entered into the soul’s world and remained there. Again, some souls wanted to be part of God’s manifested creation. They wanted to make progress on the earth-planet, so they entered into the process of evolution and started taking birth in different forms as animals and human beings.
– Sri Chinmoy, SCA 200

So presumably we chose to take the lives we have now and all the lives before them. Perhaps incarnation itself is proof of that decision – even an ant or a worm uses all its wherewithal to stay on earth and to extend that same honour to its kind. In terms of the ultimate Goal I have a very long way to go, as many of us do, but I try to spare thought for the moth, the beetle, the clod of moss, the blade of grass, who all have a way yet further. Our lives ahead may not be painless, sanitised or predictable, but they will no doubt be increasingly meaningful, since that is the way of things.

Clearly error is the way of things too – maybe including the error of dwelling on error. In case you have that same special talent, take heart in this excerpt from Sri Chinmoy:

What are mistakes after all? The very idea of a mistake being shameful or unmentionable creates a wrong vibration in the cosmos. If we think a mistake is something that will inevitably be followed by punishment, then we are totally wrong. First, let us take mistakes as failures. What are failures? Failures are the pillars of success. Failures are God’s experiences in us. God is experiencing Himself in us and through us, and He is carrying us toward the ultimate Goal which is perfect Perfection. Second, let us take mistakes as half truths. If we take a mistake as something abominable or unpardonable, then the mistake can never be rectified or remoulded into truth. But if we consider a mistake as an imperfect truth or an infinitesimal truth, if we see in a mistake an iota of truth, then we can feel that the mistake can be rectified and transformed into truth.
– Sri Chinmoy, PPAT 38


Not the Fruits Thereof

fruits-thereofIt was part way through a bowl of shahi paneer at a local restaurant that I remembered Mr Ramesh. There was something about the chef that brought my old tutor back to me from a half-buried past – something quiet, humble, yet dignified and neatly pressed. Any dish is more delicious when offered with care and attention, as Mr Ramesh knew very well.

In Britain we are not generally known for excellent service, except in high-end establishments, so it’s always a happy find in everyday places. The recession has brought with it more attentiveness throughout surviving businesses, but to your average British customer such can often come across a bit too chummy, or even frightening. It is certainly a delicate balance.

I’m always fascinated to see how customer-facing outlets are run, having worked quite a lot in retail, and having studied business at university. Obviously at the nitty-gritty level that meant studying how to make money, and indeed there were many nitty-gritty topics to cover – finance, law, logistics and so on. From Mr Ramesh we learned service management, which was something of a departure.

In appearance he was rather like an Indian Hercule Poirot, but with a short pointed beard as well as the moustache. He spoke with the precision of a newsreader, but so softly as to command pin-drop silence in his lectures – no questions asked or answered. The tutorials were another matter. Having lost someone close to her, one of my peers was intrigued by the after-life, and I was intrigued by spirituality, so the conversations would go something like this:

“There are many further improvements you might make to the supermarket layout in last week’s case study. You must understand that certain customers prefer little or no interaction when making a purchase, while others benefit from conversation and personal recommendation. Any questions?”

“Yes Sir, after someone has had a human incarnation, is it possible to then be born as a dog?”

This would bring a glitter of mischief to the otherwise inscrutable face of Mr Ramesh.

“According to my own beliefs, no, one would not return as a dog.”

“A horse then, or a bird?”

“No, only human… probably.”

“If one wants a better life as a human, what can one do in this life to ensure it next time?”

“That would depend on how you define the word ‘better’. In any case there is no assurance, since we are dealing with eternal time. If one accrues good karma in this life, it will come back sooner or later in some beneficial form… and vice versa.”

“Sir, what is the fastest way to accrue good karma?”

At this point Mr Ramesh may have closed his almond-shaped eyes and tilted his head. We thus knew we would have to wait until some later date.

“So you see that if you pre-weigh and package exactly the same cheese as is served at the delicatessen counter, and store it in open refrigerated units, you will undoubtedly sell more in quantity.”

“Yes Sir.”


It was a very slow method of learning about spiritual matters, but it made a deep impression on me back then.

I always had the sense from Mr Ramesh that there was far more to service than he taught in formal lessons. It was about making money, yet it was not about making money at all. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna, “Thou hast the right to act but claim not the fruits thereof.” Had we the chance to probe him further, Mr Ramesh may well have quoted this line. I had not yet heard of a Divine Enterprise, but I knew that to my tutor service and spirituality were not separate topics.

In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

Karma Yoga is dedicated service. When we practise Karma Yoga, we try to make all our work a true dedicated service to the Supreme. In ordinary work we immediately expect something in return; we expect success or fortune or advancement.
– Sri Chinmoy, CACR 79

My hunger for spiritual learning easily overtook the hunger for a high-powered career in commerce – I’m not sure that was ever so voracious in the first place – but while I’ve been following the teachings of Sri Chinmoy for the best part of twenty years, that’s not to say I have rejected my formal education. At my stage of development I cannot meditate twelve hours a day, and am not a very sporty type. Work is thus essential to my equilibrium – it helps offset the melancholy and lack of self-assurance that are still part of my human nature. It’s the motivation that has changed over time, rather than the discipline of service itself.

I was recently learning the song ‘Katha Nai Kaj E Madhur Bani’ by Sri Chinmoy, part of his Garden of Love Light series, which describes Karma Yoga so beautifully. The translation reads:

Not word, but work:
This sweet message awakens strength
in our heart.
Inside work remains hidden the fragrance
of flowers.
Let work be the language of our heart and
our proclamation.
Our only aim is progress, not victory and failure.
– Sri Chinmoy, GLL 239

So it was that over a bowl of shahi paneer I thought of Mr Ramesh, and all the conversations we never quite had. Fortunately, in time my inner hunger was fed more sumptuously than I could have imagined.


Carpe Diem: Tales of Carpentry

wood-pileStrange how one must choose at age thirteen the subjects that will determine an adult future. Fortunately, I now know they don’t determine anything much at all, but that was how it seemed.

Amongst the careers a child is encouraged to imagine, I’d settled on horticulture at the time. I remember neither why, nor what I thought it would mean. Maybe I expected a sort of early retirement, pottering in loamy soil, reading the weather in cloud formations, growing prize tomatoes. The reality would probably have been more about chemicals and machinery and commercial viability. As with my other imagined roles – veterinarian, costumier etc. – the dream evaporated before I had chance to be disillusioned.

Tick one of the following, the school form said at a rather contentious line: Woodwork / Cookery / Latin. It seemed the three were mutually exclusive. Following the social norms of the early 80s, it was assumed you were either a boy, a girl, or an academic. I very much wanted Latin, and my ‘career’ would surely demand it, but that would have been a dangerous choice.

No doubt there is more social unrest at some other schools in the world – maybe even in England – but ours had more than enough for my liking. As I saw it, there was no point worrying about a future at all unless my current life was preserved. Let’s just say you’re more likely to be left alone if you know how to handle a chisel, or even if you have access to such a thing. Knowing how to conjugate a Latin verb – indeed any Latin verb – is not much use in a conflict. In fact it could be a disadvantage.

Two girls joined me, for which I was glad. We huddled nervously like cornered sheep in Workshop 1 for a half-day per week – three staunch pacifists posing as barbarians. A pity I only recall the teacher’s rather rude nickname, as he deserves better. Let us call him Mr Jones, and assume that’s not his real name either. Behind his ear was always a pencil – or a cigarette at break time – and he was only ever to be seen in one of those shapeless buttoned overalls that would make anyone look like Arkwright in Open All Hours.

His most distinctive feature was having just the one thumb. His other had been sacrificed to the bandsaw – that item of most sacred machinery, feared by even the most brutish of boys. I like to think the incident prescribed Mr Jones’s teaching methods, at least in part. “Lads,” he would tell us all collectively, “be ekk’yurit!” Surprisingly, unlike in the playgrounds, I never witnessed so much as a minor injury in Workshop 1. That a teacher could lose a thumb there was clearly enough warning for all of us.

I’ve always found the scent of freshly sawn timber intoxicating. There is nothing like the feel of wood in the hand – its many warm textures, firm but yielding. There’s nothing like the grain of wood as it’s revealed in the cutting, shaving or sanding – a private journal of all its years and seasons. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of a mortise joint or a dovetail slotting together at the perfect angle. Although he never put them into words – at least not in our presence – Mr Jones surely knew all these things.

Ultimately, I don’t feel at all deprived of education. I can follow a recipe well enough, and learned more Latin phrases at university than I’d ever drop into conversation. Two more phrases have been far more useful anyway. Carpe diem my father gave me at an early age. A later one came from my stepfather, and I ought not to repeat it here, but roughly it means: don’t let the naughty people grind you down. While it may not be real Latin, it certainly helped me through school.

Wood was always in my blood anyway. Excepting myself – the only square tenon in a round mortise – there are three generations of engineers in my immediate family, and many a DIY zealot. Among their fathers before them were carpenters and other craftsmen, makers of cabinets and coffins, apparently. Who knows the wonders the women might have fashioned, had they been let loose on a chisel.

So this is how I come to be standing here in the parental garage, surrounded by generations of clamps, saws and mallets. The smaller things, like rasps and files, pliers and bradawls, are in a battered old chest with deep drawers that groan when you drag on their handles. I’ve never been let loose in here, so I’m not sure what half of them do. Many look as though they wouldn’t have a use at all in this century.

There are rows and rows of tiny compartments too – a beehive of bolts and screws, pins and bungs of countless sizes and materials. There are ordered sets of things like wrenches and drills, in coloured tin cases. They smell of dust and oil and elbow grease. They’re so well-tended, I imagine them as almost sentient, like old soldiers full of memories, comparing tales of battle and triumph.

I’m most drawn to the ones in the hard plastic boxes of our present age – power drill and power driver, power plane and circular saw – not for their power per se, but because they’re clever, and they’re much more fun. Both the folks need wheeled access to the garden now. Sensible people would order a ready-made ramp conforming to Health & Safety regulations, or they’d call someone out to make something. We considered both, so perhaps we are sensible, but we’re also resourceful, and stubborn too.

After a few cursory tips, the man amongst us goes back to his newspaper. While he never met Mr Jones, he knows that a seven-inch blade spinning mid-air is enough for my nerves, without my being observed. Thanks to my mother’s engineering accolades and her patient holding of various things – via my silent invocations and sufficiently ekk’yurit measurements too – we meet with success. A retired picnic bench is repurposed as a sturdy (if not exactly beautiful) accessory.

I wish I could tell my younger self that all the talk of vocations was a waste of time, and that everything will turn out better than I could imagine. Certainly one may have aptitudes, likes and dislikes as a child, but firm plans that endure the test of time? Unlikely. My current job did not even exist in the early 80s. I’d never heard of a website, and thus neither a web designer, so I could not have foreseen it. Neither could I have foreseen that rather than a career, or even the raising of a family, my priority would be a spiritual life.

I remember Sri Chinmoy would try his hand at all sorts of things without any formal training. He played hundreds of instruments and all manner of sports. While he would sometimes take tips from those adept at certain disciplines, he was essentially self-taught. He would draw or paint, write poetry or music, inspired directly by his meditation rather than following any learned formula or tradition. Everything he did was thus vibrant, surprising and original. He was constantly practising, in order to transcend his previous achievements.

Inspired by this example, I endeavour to follow my heart – ideally without fearing conflict or failure, though I’ve a way to go on that. I try to give my full attention to the present moment, offering what I have and what I am to it, however much or little that may be at a given time. I pick up what’s needed as I go along – whether wielding a computer or a circular saw. Carpe diem – why not? A day is more than enough life to be going on with anyway.

Do not worry about the future.
The present moment is heavy enough
For you to carry.
How do you know that tomorrow
A bright and illumining dawn
Will not invite you?

– Sri Chinmoy, AP 23166



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


A Pilgrimage in 50 Parts

My goodwill is itself
The height of my victory,
Even if I cannot or do not
See any satisfactory result from it.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Flower-Flames, Part 2

lendal-towerYork is a wizened little city, halfway from London to Edinburgh. Tourists come by their busload between the two, alighting for a day here, taking high tea, snapping group portraits against medieval backdrops. It’s a place that asks little and gives much, like one of those lone benign family members who’s glad when you drop by, and always has something freshly baking just in case, but who won’t detain you. It’s a place that well remembers the times when everything was horse-drawn and hand-tooled, when you could leave your back door open.

But these are not the reasons I’m mounting the bar at Micklegate, treading the curved hollow in the steps where countless feet have worn down the stone before mine. If a pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual significance, I suppose this is a pilgrimage of sorts. Although not taking me far from home, I still hoped it would take me a little further from my own limitations – inner expansion through outer expedition.

I itched to get away from here as a teen – to be anywhere but York, anywhere but Yorkshire, anywhere but England. I’d probably have renounced the planet itself if I could, not knowing it was the confines of my mind that were so disappointing. I won’t say I’d be happy anywhere – that wouldn’t yet be true – but now I carry my interior home with me, I want for much less outside of it. Meanwhile, this city, this county, this country – all these ancient charms and imperfections – have sneaked up on me and snared my heart.

It must have been a year ago I saw a video of Sri Chinmoy talking about goodwill. I can’t recall enough to quote his words, but he compared the inner manifestation to the outer – the one being vastly more powerful than the other. The effect of mechanically putting up a given number of posters for an event is nothing to a yogi in the Himalayas silently offering goodwill to the world. This he described as having the strength of lions roaring in their thousands. Imagine that.

York is too quaint a place for public posters on the whole, but we take leaflets door-to-door, posting them through letterboxes. I enjoy the simplicity, and there’s a certain mental satisfaction to completing each bundle of 100, 500, 1000. Of course we all try to approach such tasks as a meditation, but I suppose I wanted to go back to the very roots of manifestation – the inner offering of goodwill with nothing to show for it. That sounds easy, and I don’t doubt it would be for you. I can’t claim to have heard even one lion testing its voice thus far, but the effort has certainly changed me for the better.

I was humbled and somewhat daunted by the list circulating in January – pledges of projects to celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s 50th year since coming to the West, all to be complete before his birthday in August. Brave, arduous things they were, beyond my dreams. But I’ve come to see it’s not one’s current standard that matters most. Short of a great miracle, there’s not much can be done about that overnight anyway. Forward movement itself is a better yardstick – the sincerity and direction of each new step, the offering of whatever one has with both hands, however insignificant that may seem.

So I decided to circumambulate the city 50 times throughout those months, practising silent japa, offering goodwill to the people around me. It’s a small place, as I think I mentioned – each walk takes 50 minutes. Even so, my health kept me from the August deadline. Undeterred, instead I aimed to finish before the frosts would come and make the venture dangerous. So it is that I’m out at first light on the last November Sunday, to make my way clockwise around the city for the 50th time, on top of the boundary walls.

I was maybe 9 years old when I first walked the walls here, and felt I’d stepped into one of those Heath Robinson drawings in old storybooks where nothing looks quite real. That was the irony. Growing up in America, I’d only seen turrets and arrowslits at Disneyland, or on plastic toys from Mattel. Here the medieval bounds are raised on grassy ridges of earth, a platform of stone slabs a few feet wide to walk on, a shield of stone to one side, and a perilous drop on the other.

The only way up is through gatehouses called bars – entrances to the inner streets that would have been tolled and heavily guarded. I see them every day, and every day feel I’m on the set of some rousing adventure. It’s best not to wonder too closely about the history of such a place though. It never ceases to amaze me what people will do to one another, and life was all the more expendable in days gone by – its ending too often brutal and public.

Now there’s no toll and nothing to guard against. The only sentries are blackbirds accusing me of some ill-mannered interruption, or pigeons idling away the morning, lumbering off reluctantly when I step too near their reverie. Squirrels too, chubby and busy this time of year, croaking strange alarms to one another from the trees above when I approach a world they consider their own.

While I’m sorry not to have made this journey in summer, watching each season unfold brings a different satisfaction. In spring the green banks are peppered with daffodils, thousands of yellow light bulbs, miniature messengers of the sun. Wild geese shepherd their children patiently from one water to another on the streets below, barking orders, halting and confusing traffic. In summer the sycamores wave jazz hands in the breezes, the banks made gold again with buttercups.

One flagstone is a game board scored out for soldiers – some ancestor of chess or checkers – empty of players now. The corner lookouts are empty too, the warming rooms beneath them empty of fire, their turrets like a long-dead giant’s jaw, with gappy and decaying teeth. I’m too late to offer them my little farthing of goodwill, but I like to remember them, and to thank them for their labours. The masons too who cut these stones 800 years ago, and the Romans before them in the layers beneath.

I walk in solitude for long stretches, but aware of all this silent company I’m not really alone. Around me the city is stirring, and up here the first keen vanguard of backpackers arrives, marching on an early breakfast. I snatch halves of sentences in many languages as they pass. A few wisps of steam rise from the gutters of houses, the air fragrant with coal smoke and the damp rotting of leaves. The Minster begins its call to prayer, and I picture bell-ringers hauling ropes with all their attention, earnest church-goers in their Sunday best. I smile to these neighbours as yet unseen. Some days it’s too cold to know if I’m smiling, or if it just feels that way.

Soon the foot-traffic would turn 50 minutes to hours. More care is needed then to pass safely, more time to stand and wait outside of photographs. It’s cheering to be carried along by the buoyancy of visitors, but rather more challenging then as a meditation. In my state of evolution, the simple act of walking, chanting and offering goodwill is like rubbing the belly, patting the head and hopping on one foot. I have no more limbs for extra tasks, and no more inner bandwidth.

Between you and me, my concentration does break occasionally, but only in emergencies you understand. Sometimes there’s no choice but to fully wonder at the sun dazzling through an orange canopy of leaves, or to mark the vicious stare of a crow and muse on what his dark thoughts could be, or to study a curious mushroom growing out of bark. Some favourite passages I confess to taking at an amble – one tunnel of trees with an underwater quality of light, one aspect of the Minster, magnificent, imposing, enormous for a city its size.

On weekdays the schools and office blocks are lit up inside, little figures hurrying to the entrances under umbrellas or already pulled in close at their desks. I imagine myself in the shoes of those I see, on buses with steamed up windows, or pedalling by in a suit and bicycle clips, sculling on the river, walking a dog, digging up the road. What is goodwill really? To me it feels like a glance of the heart, an inner smile from one to another, a prayer for something positive but small, undemanding of God’s time – I don’t yet fully trust my appeals.

Passing once through a gatehouse I found a man asleep, his possessions rolled up in a bag, a carton of milk ready for the morning, whenever morning came to him. The same place another day a Hollywood actor was stretching for a run, trying to be invisible with his plain black clothes and lowered head. But quietly I knew him, and so did the woman passing from the other side. We raised our eyebrows to each other and carried on. I’ve never been homeless or famous, and could not sincerely put myself in either pair of shoes, but I know there would be something we hold in common, something we could talk about between us if we had the chance – something I could offer and something else I could receive.

Watching my shadow walk home beside me, I wonder what other shapes it made before this life, and what shapes are yet to come – which of God’s infinite guises. I suppose this pilgrimage has shown me anew that we’re each a significant part of this great spectacle. I have a right to no more than my part, and also no less.

My philosophy is the acceptance of life. We have to accept life — not run away from life or enter into the Himalayan caves. Here on earth we have to offer goodwill, inspiration and aspiration. We have to love and serve mankind. Then only this world of ours can be transformed.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 23


God’s Great Experiment

This story was first published in Inspiration-Letters #25, an online magazine of articles, written by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre around the world. The theme for this edition is “Living in the Now”.

My father forwarded an email to me this morning — one of those circulars sent between batches of friends and family. I always read them; I know my own friends and family would only share with me those topics that had profoundly moved them or amused them. This one must have been going around for years, and yet the story was new to me. Maybe you know it already.

It was the morning rush hour, some time in early 2007, at an especially ordinary subway station in Washington DC. An unassuming busker played violin, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. During his performance of 43 minutes he made $32. Not a bad haul, until you find out he was Joshua Bell, one of the most highly acclaimed virtuoso musicians in the world. Three days earlier, one of the cheaper tickets to see him play at Boston Symphony Hall would have set you back $100. In concert he can earn something in the region of $1,000 a minute: the same man playing the same pieces on the same violin.

The violin was hand crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, during what was known as his ‘golden period’. The performance was to begin with Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. According to Bell, it is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” [Source] It is also considered one of the most difficult pieces to master for solo violin, and is said to celebrate the very breadth of human possibility itself.

And almost nobody noticed.

Only one woman recognised Bell, and was responsible for $20 of his $32 takings. Most of those who seemed to pick up on anything special were children, but they were whisked away by harried parents in the rush to work. Others threw in a perfunctory handful of pennies as they passed, perhaps just out of duty or habit. Some did recognise this was no ordinary busker, but a man demonstrating considerable skill and a deep connection with the music he was offering. Woefully few noticed anything much at all though, buried in their own thoughts and iPods, fixed on some future moment — the start of a working day, a business meeting, a deadline. Many queued to buy lottery tickets at the top of an escalator, well within earshot, not knowing they already had a winning ticket to see and hear one of the greatest performances they may ever witness in this lifetime.

I am not saying getting to work on time or getting children to school is unimportant; I am not saying I myself would have recognised Bell — far from it — but just reading about it saddened me and made me wonder about this age of stress and bustle. Are we so ruled by clocks and achievements that we have nothing spare for beauty and expression? Are we even looking and listening at all, or are we quite literally losing our senses? It was a deliberately tough challenge on the part of those who set up the experiment — rush hour commuters caught in their routine are bound to be a fairly downbeat and inflexible crowd, especially in such an uninspiring setting — but the response is still saddening.

It certainly made me think.

How can I augment my own tiny jigsaw piece of this world, treasuring it more and thus perhaps in some microscopic way raising the general awareness of its wonder? This world is itself God’s great Experiment. Will I then rush past it, flinging behind me a few spare pennies at His creation? Or will I let myself be ravished by His constant outpouring of surprise and adventure?

* * *
I remember a few months ago walking through a railway station somewhere in the north of England. There was a series of hoardings, each featuring a photograph of a destination that could easily be reached from there by train. One was a stretch of moorland, reminiscent of some enigmatic Brontë novel, fading back for miles, as though into the very mists of time. Another was a futuristic angle on a city, all glass and metal, like the winning project in some architectural award scheme. I was not reading the words, but only glancing at the pictures, imagining the sounds and smells that might go with them. A third was of higgledy-piggledy shops and houses, so bent with age they were nearly leaning into one another’s facades across a cobbled alley. The scene was almost ridiculously quaint, like a fairy-tale illustration born of an over-active imagination.

“Imagine living there!” I thought to myself for a tiny moment of childlike joy, before I realised where it was: York. I do live there.

My home is just outside the city walls — a two-mile circuit of stone begun by the Romans two thousand years ago. Through the middle ages, York is said to have been England’s second most powerful and consequential city after London. It also then became the northern capital of the Church of England, and the building of its imposing cathedral was soon under way. Known as a ‘minster’ — originally a missionary teaching church — it is now the second biggest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, after Cologne. It holds the single largest example of medieval stained glass in the world, some of the other windows dating back to the twelfth century. With the rise of York’s importance, the protecting city walls became increasingly fortified, and its four portcullised entrances more elaborate. Since then, apart from retaining its religious status, its power and influence have faded almost to nothing. Its modest size and relative insignificance have thus kept it safe from war damage and inappropriate development. It remains a rare jewel of England, a delicious layer-cake of eccentricities, a living picture book of almost impossible charm.

Appreciating this city is never a conscious effort for me; each time I walk to town, the sight of it really does take my breath away. The streets are so small and condensed, the buildings such a raggle-taggle patchwork of styles and eras, only a slight turn of the head can reveal a whole new undiscovered story. Admittedly some days I appreciate it more than others. When caught in a downpour of hail, or when the ice on the bald cobbled pavements has not been gritted, or when I am quite simply in a rush to get things done, no I do not stop and wonder at the enchanting marvelousness of it all, I just want to get home. But today, sobered by the story of the violin, I am running all my errands at an ambling pace, and via all the tourist routes. Not exactly a hardship on the first sunny Saturday of Spring.

One of the things I love most about this place is that people are almost always here because they want to be. There is no significant business other than tourism, and although it sits exactly halfway between London and Edinburgh, York is not really on the way to anywhere. People visit here from all over the world precisely to be fascinated, to be swept away by legends of conquerors and gladiators and Viking ships, to walk into a living folk tale or a ghost story. Many are children, and those who are not are either escorting children or taking a childlike view. They walk slowly, smilingly, gazing in all directions. They pause to point out a gargoyle in a nook, they queue patiently for a table at the best teashop, they listen attentively to buskers; they are constantly stopping, looking and listening, because that is exactly what they came for. This is perhaps the opposite end of the sensory spectrum from a Washington subway station in rush hour.

Naturally it is a slightly different matter to see these sights every day, to do the shopping and other chores in the middle of a tourist attraction, but today I give all my attention to the people around me, and immerse myself in their wonderment. Two girls walk hand in hand, tiny feet in great big boots, smiling and laughing at a shared story, talking all at once in a Japanese jumble of memories. A hen party gabbles across the bridge, bursting with loud and insalubrious laughter, high precarious shoes, identical devil horns covered in pink feathers. A regatta is under way — teams of university rowers heaving red-faced along the gloss of the river. An elderly couple cling to one another for strength or out of familiar habit. A tiny child peeps out from a fabric sling on the chest of its father. A little boy strides ahead of his parents with a blunt wooden sword and a plastic Roman helmet, protecting them from sudden marauders. English in countless accents, languages I have never heard; faces I have never seen and will never see again. Everyone is looking, listening, stopping, smiling, captured only by a constantly unfolding moment; ordinary people doing ordinary things, fully engaged in God’s virtuoso Performance.

Walking home along the tops of the city walls, I hear the peal of church bells fading behind me. I peer over the battlements to see the long green banks full of daffodil buds, ready to explode into their annual sea of yellow any day now. Stepping down at Micklegate Bar — the old main entrance to the city — I pass one final cluster of visitors, and a woman’s voice is the last I hear. Glancing at the heavy bag of vegetables on my shoulder, she turns to her companion:

“Imagine if you lived here…”

My life must learn
How to become
The life of the world.”
–Sri Chinmoy

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