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Ask a Busy Person

If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
– Benjamin Franklin

One of my colleagues – an especially hard-working and time-pressed one – consciously avoids the word ‘busy’. As an exercise I tried the same for a week and found it surprisingly awkward. That was an education. I’ll be trying to make it a long-term habit, as the mere effort has changed my outlook. The poor word itself must feel overwhelmed by over-use. Usually preceded by ‘too’, it implies exhaustion, unwillingness and stress (yet another over-worked word).

Of course, many people genuinely like to work. A beach holiday would be the stuff of nightmares for some. When hailing a taxi recently I was greeted by a man well into his seventies. He’d taken to the life of a cabbie on retirement, as he’d found his days too long and uneventful. How spritely and positive he was, how willing to be of service.

I love to be occupied too, and would always rather have too much to do than not enough. But almost any action can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the extremes to which it’s taken, and – no doubt more importantly – the intentions driving it. Food is good and necessary, but eating too much or too little can be harmful and may lead to compulsions. One needs a certain number of belongings to exist in reasonable comfort, but hoarding for the next zombie apocalypse is perhaps going a bit far. Just so with work. There comes a point when one must say: good enough is good enough.

For me this is not a natural tendency. I caught myself the other day with a shovel in both hands, decanting compost from one bin to another and determined to discharge the task ‘perfectly’. Yes, every last pineapple peeling, each shred of brown paper, the very teabag in the furthest corner must be winkled out, cast onto the wheelbarrow and transported without the loss of a single worm or crumb of material along the way. I laughed aloud at myself. Here is a stinking heap of waste, mouldering, writhing with flies and nameless invertebrates – the least perfect substance one could imagine. Yet I perspired not just from the physical labour, but also from the self-imposed duty of a timely and tidy execution.

Once my self-mockery had receded, I took a deep breath (facing away from the wheelbarrow), and asked myself where God is in all this. For me there is always – and must always be – a reply to that question, it’s just a matter of remembering to ask. He is perhaps easier found in the kitchen or the vegetable garden, but I’ve no doubt He resides there too – in the transformative nature of compost, rife with as many metaphors as microorganisms.

God calls,
But I am either busy
Or I do not answer.”
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 26248

The Sri Chinmoy Centre recently offered a free meditation course in York. I always find such classes illumining and enjoyable – sharing a practice that has been life-changing in the case of my peers and myself, and which proves at least life-enhancing in many more cases. For me it’s far more than just a hobby, but I’m glad to see this simple tool entering the mainstream, now widely adopted for physical and mental health, if not for spiritual growth per se.

Sadly, many people feel too busy to dedicate even 5 or 10 minutes a day to switching off devices and delving into quietude. They’re frustrated not to do it ‘perfectly’ first time, even though the effort itself is almost sure to bear fruit. The chronically overwhelmed – those who would perhaps benefit most – are often the least likely to practise. Strange how the advance in technology seems only to have made us feel more fully occupied. Since we no longer have to dig the field for food, hew out our own shelter from stone, chop wood for warmth, stitch our own clothes from hide or handwovens, how did we come to this?

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
– Socrates

In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted my generation would be working a 15-hour week. In fact our expectations – of cleanliness, comfort and enjoyment – have risen in line with our standard of living, if not beyond it. The perceived value of time – both for leisure and work – is growing constantly. The vast array of choices available in every sphere of life add pressure and take time. Add to that the pressure of social media and other time spent (or wasted) online – incessantly checking emails, news, stats – often while trying to complete a number of other tasks, and the perceived increase in busyness is no great mystery. Perhaps Keynes did not reckon on the power of Parkinson’s Law – that work really does expand to fit the available time. He surely didn’t reckon on the power of the Internet to distract, confuse and harry.

Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.”
The Economist

Whereas the privilege of sloth used to be a sign of wealth in centuries past, it seems busyness has become a badge of honour. There is a growing sense that if one is not doing at least two things simultaneously throughout all waking hours, and is not open to communication the rest of the time, one’s life is not important, one is either selfish, lazy or has nothing valuable to contribute. Indeed gratuitous busyness can be driven by the ego, by a lack of self-acceptance, by the fear of meeting one’s very self in stillness and quietude, and of being confronted by inadequacies in the dark alley of the mind. (You needn’t wonder how I know this.)

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”
– Lao Tzu

Though I eschew social media and avoid wasting too much time in other ways, I regularly catch myself assuming busyness is related to self-worth, if only as a distant cousin. Occupation is good – it pays the bills, it builds and creates useful things, it helps the body remain fit, keeps the mind out of mischief and brings a sense of contribution that is no doubt valuable – but inwardly it is just a vehicle and not the goal. Clearly I am only part-way towards that goal myself, but it’s one I long to reach. With baby steps I’m gaining ground, thanks to the teachings of Sri Chinmoy. Essentially the key is to feel awareness inwardly and outwardly at the same time during any activity. Though it may sound counter-productive, rather than splitting attention, it actually focuses attention.

During action, the best way to meditate is to remember to offer yourself, the action, and the result of the action to the Supreme. When you stop meditating and enter into the world of action, think of your action as a continuation of your meditation. When you meditate in silence, you go very high, very deep. And when you begin your daily activities, feel that this is another form of meditation which is called manifestation. Meditation in action is manifestation.”
– Sri Chinmoy, MCV 71

At our meditation retreats in New York twice a year, each visitor takes at least one shift preparing or serving meals. Cooking takes place at a vegetarian restaurant called Annam Brahma, across the road from the grounds where we meditate and where Sri Chinmoy himself spent a great deal of time during his life. Whether weighing or chopping vegetables, stirring great vats of curry, or washing up afterwards, we work in silence as per Sri Chinmoy’s request, excepting any words deemed necessary. I love the stillness amidst the dynamism. A somewhat monastic atmosphere pervades, an almost tangible divinity, far from anything to be expected in a hot and bustling kitchen.

Work soulfully.
Lo, you will not be able
To find any difference
Between Heaven and earth.”
– Sri Chinmoy FF 9161

Though the tasks are simple and leave the mind free for the most part, one almost cannot think about mundane earthly things in a place that has been dedicated to the soulful preparation of food for decades. According to Sri Chinmoy, a cook’s consciousness can affect the food itself, and thus the recipient. While preparing food at home I try to recall the feeling of Annam Brahma as best I can, with varying success. I am not a natural multi-tasker, but in trying to centre myself, clear my mind and focus solely on the task at hand, I am better placed at least to avert disaster in the kitchen.

If I may use the forbidden word once more, in all my life I have never been so busy as I am these days – or should I say I have never had so little time to waste – but I’ve also never felt so well or so content. Although my days are long and start early, my week’s paid work takes just slightly more time than Keynes predicted. I feel very fortunate the rest of my time is largely taken up by household chores. Despite a genuine concern for the rights of women, I confess to being particularly well suited to domesticity. As any nun or monk will tell you, simple tasks lend themselves more readily to a life of inner reflection.

There is no such thing
As insignificant work.
Therefore, we must needs do everything
With our heart’s love
And our life’s respect.”
– Sri Chinmoy FF 7207

Ours is a dynamic and abundant path, and I’ll be forever learning along the way. Sri Chinmoy asks that we have an occupation, that we remain active and serve others as much and as often as we can. But just as a prayer recited in parrot-fashion may not reach the intended Recipient, work carried out mechanically, unwillingly, or even resentfully can have no inner benefit, and perhaps only little benefit outwardly. Ours is to try and live the inner and outer lives in tandem. In so doing, one may fit ever more into a day or a week. Busyness then becomes ever more efficient, and time seems increasingly elastic. Benjamin Franklin was right about more than just electricity.

Not how busy you are
But why you are busy
Is what matters.
Are you busy because
Your mind is criticising everyone
Or because your heart is loving everyone?”
– Sri Chinmoy, FF 4490

0

Meditation on a Vegetable Garden

What do you want?
I want good health.
Meditate on a vegetable garden.
Meditate on a dancing child.
– Sri Chinmoy, Meditate on

I never imagined I’d turn into a packet-reading food-nerd. I thought that kind of life was for other people. My past experience with strict diets didn’t bear any discernible fruit. One excluded all fruit in fact, as well as dairy, gluten, soya and anything that was even a distant relative of fungus. I clove to it rigidly for 18 months, on the advice of a dubious practitioner, and felt precisely the same as before. I ended it suddenly and spectacularly – celebrating with pizza and ice cream – then came out in a nasty rash. That’s the sole physical response I remember from a long and disappointing episode. I denounced diets as hokum from then on.

Having been brought up in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition, I tend not to talk about ailments unless people ask specifically – and perhaps even repeatedly, so I know they’re not just being polite. We are not, I think it can be safely said, a family of malingerers. My father recently broke his back in two places, but cycled home four miles and slept on it a night before seeking medical advice. My brother once fractured his foot in the rigours of a marathon, but we are not predisposed to rest. The break thus opened three times more, until some bone had to be purloined from elsewhere and bolted on with metal to be certain. Though I’m probably not the most stoic amongst us, we are all determined problem-solvers. We can also be stubbornly – perhaps even ruthlessly – positive.

I’ve had more than 20 years of sketchy health, which is not at all interesting in itself, but it has led to many interesting lessons. After reading Auspicious Good Fortune, people often ask what has happened to my physical strength since the end of the book – not, I hope, because my physical struggle was the most engaging part of the story, but because that part of the story was left unresolved. In answer, my recovery is still in progress, but has come on in leaps and bounds – largely thanks to two discoveries, both of which I consider miracles.

I’m a firm believer in prayers being answered at God’s appointed Hour, and not a moment sooner. It was 2011 when I came across Ashok Gupta, whose excellent course brought me around 70% recovery from CFS, for which I’ll be forever grateful. The remaining 30% I assumed I’d need to manage long-term, which I’d already accepted gladly in comparison. Then earlier this year came the second miracle. This one may be of interest to those with pretty much any condition that defies traditional medicine. Hence I’m sharing it here with genuine enthusiasm, rather than evangelism. If you and yours are already healthy, more power to you. No need to take the trouble of reading on.

* * *

I don’t set out to disparage our beloved National Health Service. In Britain we’re lucky still to have one at all. If ever I find some important part of me has fallen off, or dramatically changed shape, I’ll be straight on the phone to them (assuming hands, mouth and ears are still intact). But while the general practitioner in a village surgery is doubtless employed as God’s instrument on a regular basis, one cannot expect him or her to be omniscient.

My current household comprises: my mother with a long history of MS (or some such, it was never confirmed), myself with a long history of ME, and one small dog with mobility issues (her behavioural issues may or may not be relevant here). Perhaps the latter can be considered a control in our experiment, as she shows no interest in taking part.

It was my mother who discovered Terry Wahls – purely by ‘chance’ if you believe such things – a medical doctor in the US who developed MS, and who was gradually declining, as science would expect. She was eventually confined to a wheelchair, but with a busy consulting job and two small children, she wasn’t about to give in. On top of her existing duties, with painstaking research and experimentation, she designed a regime of diet, exercise and meditation. Within five months she was not just out of the wheelchair, she was riding a bike.

As you can probably gather, this is exactly the kind of gung-ho no-nonsense approach to life that would appeal to my family. “We have to try it,” I said, and so we did, but without expectation. Initially I followed the guidelines myself just for solidarity, as well as for practicality – I’m Head Chef at home and didn’t fancy cooking different meals for each of us. I hadn’t even hoped for any personal benefit, but now I follow gladly for my own sake too.

* * *

The first thing people tend to ask is what we’re not allowed to eat, but it’s more about eating enough ‘good’ things in as wide a variety as possible, and in almost comical quantities. There is simply very little space left in a human body for ‘bad’ things once that’s done. Essentially ‘bad’ means: gluten, dairy, refined sugar, anything overly processed or starchy, and anything grown with the help of chemicals. In brief, ‘good’ means nine tightly packed cups a day – three heaped dinner plates – of fresh fruit and vegetables. A third are greens, a third sulphur-rich (mushrooms, brassicas and oniony things), and a third are richly coloured. Ideally one would eat a rainbow daily.

The only sticking point is that TW is a staunch carnivore. To the dismay of our dog, we’ve adapted the regime to a vegetarian lifestyle. For me – following the teachings of Sri Chinmoy* – this is largely a spiritual choice, but just about any reason you can think of is a good one as far as I’m concerned, and has been since my teens. My mother has made the choice more recently for a variety of reasons (none of which is my coercion, I must add). But despite our ‘cheating’ by not living like proper cave-persons and abiding by their more gruesome traditions, the changes are remarkable. In two days we both felt quite different. At three months, the results now border on the magical.

We have two deliveries a week, containing a full colour spectrum of organic fruit and vegetables. It’s like a game of Tetris trying to fit the parcels into the fridge without them getting squashed or falling out again. The mound of produce in each meal for two looks like enough for a family reunion, or for some herbivorous zoo animal. Within days, the shelves are completely bare again.

* The kind of food that keeps the body and mind calm and quiet is the best food for those following the spiritual life. Naturally, vegetables are far better than meat. Meat comes from the animals, which are always fighting and destroying one another. If we eat meat, then the animal consciousness enters into us. And it is this animal consciousness that we want to transcend. But the consciousness of vegetables and fruits is very mild. They are not destructive like animals.
– Sri Chinmoy, My Rose Petals

* * *

The second thing people usually ask is whether we crave or miss anything, and the answer is genuinely: no. There’s an overwhelming sense of abundance, rather than of abstinence. With plenteous ‘good’ fats and a vast array of condiments, pretty much anything can be made delicious, but organically grown versions of pretty much anything are markedly more flavoursome anyway. They tend to taste as one would hope they’d taste, rather than just looking right and being a bland disappointment in the eating.

Some say, “I wouldn’t have the will-power,” but truly it’s organisation that counts. Sourcing, preparing and even making time to eat such quantities takes planning of almost military standards. Very fortunately we both have a penchant for spreadsheets, which I realise not everyone shares. A pencil and paper would be the required minimum.

Others say they couldn’t give up cheese / chocolate biscuits / (insert secret pleasure of your choice). But if it meant the difference between being able to walk and not… they might give it a go. 🙂

Some say the expense would put them off, or would be truly prohibitive. Indeed, we’re extremely lucky having access to ingredients of such quality. But even fast food is not always cheap. Adapting a house, garden and car for disabled access is not much of a bargain either. Missing countless days of work over several years is about the least cost-effective way to live – especially when one is already rendered unemployable in the traditional sense, and has no insurance or sick leave to fall back on. And that’s just our own past and present. Who knows what troubles, as yet unrevealed, we’re nipping in the bud.

The fact is that one needn’t jump in with both feet, as we have done, to see improvements. A bag of organic kale costs less than a bag of Doritos of the same weight, for example. If you want to know how to make kale chips, I’ll tell you for nothing, but you might not want to get me started on that. 🙂

* * *

A recent visit to America for the Sri Chinmoy Centre bi-annual celebrations was the biggest test for me yet: my first foreign trip since starting this regime, and straight into the home of Coca Cola, McDonalds and Hostess cakes. But my jaw was set. I first played vegetable Tetris in the freezer as well as in the fridge before leaving home, so my mother could subsist without me for a while. I then offered a fervent prayer against power-cuts in my absence.

On landing in New York, before even taking so much as a glass of water, I forayed out into a raging thunderstorm for supplies at our local store, Guru Health Foods. Every day saw me hurrying away with boxes and boxes of greens between singing practices and meditations.

Only once I made a trip from Queens to Manhattan, with my heart set on visiting a certain health-food supermarket – highly acclaimed for quality and variety. I imagined my new obsession would be fed sumptuously, and I’d struggle to carry all my chosen treasures home. In the event I turned my nose up at most of it, and returned with just two types of radish in a paper bag. It was then I realised the full extent of my transformation to packet-reader. You may laugh. I certainly did. But the proof of the pudding – or daikon – is in the eating. For the full ten days I stuck to my guns, and felt astonishingly well.

* * *

Landing back in England I’m impatient to see our new vegetable garden, converted from a disused triangle of lawn, with raised wooden beds at scooter-friendly height. I arrive to find everything about it tidy and sturdily built, and now can’t wait to see it burgeoning with green.

My mother has drawn out detailed plans several times on graph paper, but in the end we just have to dive in – accepting we are novices and will make mistakes. Normal people have their vegetable patches out the back somewhere, but ours has ended up beside the pavement, where all and sundry can monitor our progress and pass comment. Nobody has offered anything but enthusiasm so far, and a few secret scraps of advice. All seem to share in the anticipation.

We dig out little trenches for seeds and seedlings my mother has been nurturing. Our ambition has crept up and up – to the heady heights of cabbages, cauliflowers, chard, rocket, pak choi, watercress, peas, beans, salad leaves, radishes, kohl rabi, two colours of tomato, several types of broccoli and kale. Elsewhere are various herbs, strawberries, raspberries, tayberries and blueberries. I laugh now as I didn’t know what kohl rabi was before all this began. I’d never eaten kimchi. I’d never cooked buckwheat or chicory or a curry from scratch. It’s a veritable whirlwind of adventure.

I breathe in the fragrance of the earth in sunlight and am suddenly back in childhood, skipping rope in my grandfather’s garden, the scent of tomato vines and feed and fertiliser all tumbling back in a warm glow of fondness. I watch the seedlings changing overnight, breathe in the scent of earth in rain, and think how many have gone before us in this humble yet magical endeavour. Life-giving life unfolds before our eyes, and I can only give thanks for it.

0

The Cheerful Loser

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

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

Sri Chinmoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 645)

* * *

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

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 1257)

* * *

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

– Sri Chinmoy (AP 8135)

* * *

He is the great winner
Who wins.

He is the greater winner
Who is the cheerful loser.

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

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

– Sri Chinmoy (DL 939)

* * *

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

– Sri Chinmoy (FF 9582)

* * *

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

– Sri Chinmoy (ISA 23)

* * *

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

– Sri Chinmoy (ST 31885)

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In gratitude to Sri Chinmoy for twenty astonishing years.

2

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

2

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.

0

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!

2

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.

2

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

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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

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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.”

“Yes.”

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.

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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

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