I met my second nephew for the first time last week, eight days after his arrival on earth (that’s me on the right, at a similar age). His expressions changed fast, as if dreaming. What could he dream so soon? Memories of other worlds or other lives perhaps. I wondered what his dreams would be in later life, hoped we would be friends, collect beetles in a jar, laugh together over a late lemonade in his grandmother’s garden.
He is huge for a newborn, with hot fists and a determined frown, but I was a little afraid for him. It seems brave to me to be born at all, to be human, to live on earth.
Despite its intensity, nobody remembers being born. Everyone uses their first breath to cry. Raw sound, cold, movement, pain, exhaustion, separation from the source, are too much to bear at once. There is no strength of one’s own to call upon, and nothing certain or familiar on which to depend. Julius Caeser, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, however mighty they became, each arrived naked and alone, and cried.
My primal bewilderment stayed with me longer than theirs, and perhaps longer than most. The cry silenced but was always there. Life was a fast road and the human vehicle seemed so brittle on it. I saw pain in others and felt it as my own. I grew no armour in my thoughts or senses.
I was a morbid child, my first dream in colour was of death. I lay awake in fear of everything, craving the release of sleep, but dreading my own dreams more than waking life. “Empty your mind,” said my mother, “think beautiful things or have no thought at all.”
So I made my first tiny flame of peace inside. It lit my world a little in that strange perpetual night; spilled into the darkness so at odds with my safe and gentle circumstances.
I worried about life and the end of it, about the world and myself in it, about being small and about growing up. I worried that God had forgotten me on earth. That’s the strangest thing: I was raised an atheist but always secretly believed in God, that there was more to life than earth, that death was not the end of it. Thank God for that.
It was a vague belief though, like a church bell ebbing and gathering on a faraway breeze, or a photograph faded almost to obscurity. There was nobody to sharpen the image for me. To own to another that I believed in God, and needed to feel closer to Him, would have seemed weak, delusional even; like admitting that I couldn’t handle myself.
But nobody knew anyway. Nobody knew where we are, or even how far the universe goes. Nobody knew for sure what happens after death. Nobody knew where God is. It didn’t seem to bother anyone. That bothered me most of all.
I blundered through my teens as well as anybody can, still haunted by fears I couldn’t name, increasingly sensible to the vulnerability of a world I didn’t understand. As I grew, so did the dark. I was trapped in it, a slave to my own fear. The faint memory of God was swallowed in it too, and I was terribly alone.
Luck has a habit of following me, especially when I need it most. A lady where I lived had taught herself to meditate, and gave me some books so I could do the same. She talked about God, naturally, like a friend. The picture grew in clarity again, in brief glimmers.
Through each attempt, I collected strength beyond my own ability, harvesting happiness from an orchard much more bountiful than my own, an orchard of sweet fruits that went on forever, where it was always summer. I dared remember that my life is not a solo voyage, but piloted by Someone bigger. At last I could breathe, as if for the first time.
One day I turned against fear, and it dissolved, like a serpent made of smoke. God had not forgotten me; I had been forgetting Him.
I was a fair-weather friend to God though. Meditation was difficult. Although I practised every day, my efforts lacked vigour, unless I was desperate or in trouble. I reached an agreement—a sort of dual tenancy—with the serpent of smoke. It was always there but it would keep to its own quarters. God lived somewhere upstairs, and I was often too idle to climb there, perhaps calling a perfunctory hello from the second step each morning.
Courage came then from more comfortable sources, the sort you can buy in a bottle or a pill, that you can win through fickle friendships and small outer victories. It was a cheap happiness, and like most imitations, it fell apart after a few years. I chased it, all over the world, but arrived back where I started, and that time with nothing.
I suppose it was a new birth, a blessing in the form of annihilation. There was an accident which nearly took my life. Soon after that I had no money, no job, no family near me, no friends, no home, barely any belongings, not a shred of hope or self-esteem. I was helpless as an infant. And I cried a good deal.
I knew I had to learn to meditate properly. I had to find someone who knew how to do it and could show me. I dug out the books the lady had given me and tried a new exercise: The Spiritual Guide. It started with imagination, as all visualisations do. I waited on a beach in my heart for someone to come and teach me, and eventually he did.
He was a beautiful Indian man, all softness and sweetness, but with the strength of a galaxy contained in a human form. He loved me, as if he had known me always. He listened and understood, without judgment or harshness. He encouraged me, sincerely, not indulgently, and not in words, but in silence, releasing wisdom and peace like fragrances. I had only to breathe them in.
Here was someone who knew. He knew God. Anything I did not understand, he already knew. He did not need to tell me; the fact that he knew was enough for me, to see it and feel it in him. He contained all opposites, extremes of all I had longed for: subtlety and certainty, beauty and practicality, and most of all, immaculate poise.
He did not answer me or solve anything directly, but having sat with him, I knew what to do in life, and felt the strength to carry it out. Over the span of a year I gained a good job, a car, and a beautiful home. I was safe and healthy, challenged by the world but no longer terrified by it.
I wanted to learn more, to meet with others who knew meditation’s secrets. I wanted to practise with them, find new techniques, exchange experiences. The Sri Chinmoy Centre was the first and only place I found.
I thought it had been my own imagination. How could such a man exist on earth as the one who had sat with me every day that year? There he was, in photographs and videos. He had come to life. He had been there all along. I could read his words and sing his songs. Eventually I could sit in his outer presence, as I had done so many times in my heart.
I cannot account for my good fortune. I am small and full of imperfection, but divine love touches all creation like the fingers of the sun. Luckily we need not wait to deserve it.
In Sri Chinmoy I found answers to questions I had not yet formed. In his brief life of 76 years he gave to all equally and abundantly: not what was deserved but what was needed. In poetry, in songs, in physical demonstration and silent meditation, he made maps for us: maps of immediate inner lands, and others we will not reach for a very long time.
Sometimes I miss him. I had ten years to become attached to the luxury of his living presence. But I know he has given me much more than I need, and much more than all the world can give me. When I miss him, I know I need only sit in my heart and he will come to me.