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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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’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
The loser’s outer speed
The winner’s inner speed
The winner’s outer speed
– Sri Chinmoy (AP 645)
* * *
You can never be a loser,
You can only be a winner
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
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
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)
* * *
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)
It is often said that while meditation is simple, it may not be easy. In a growing culture of ever-quicker fixes, those new to meditation are prone to giving up early, convinced they lack the aptitude. In truth, few take to it naturally right away. It is the effort, the direction, the giving of priority, of time, of space, which are pivotal. One cannot sow a seed and force its growth in the space of a day. Even a good meditation cannot be measured like a waistline or a golf score. One may not know how profound a meditation has been until surfacing again into the world, even if then.
Though I first learned to meditate around thirty years ago, and practised somewhat regularly, today marks twenty years of my formally practising a spiritual life, as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. Before embarking on such a journey – as on any journey – the mind wants to know what is involved. What skills, provisions, equipment will be required? How may I ready myself? One may as well leave provisions behind, along with any preconceptions. All is amply provided, and revealed in its own time. It need not make sense. In fact it is highly unlikely to make sense to the mind at all.
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes his personal tale of becoming a Trappist monk. He thought joining a silent order would mean a life of solitude, quietude, leaving the outer world – including his writing career – behind, and that seems a fair assumption. Were that assumption right, the book itself would not exist. In a candid open letter to God, he says:
Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, in the thirty-third year of my age, being a cleric in minor orders – before I went to make my solemn vows, this is what it looked like to me. It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.
By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.
That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.
– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith
Twenty years after lying in metaphorical dust myself, I know now as I knew then that this is right for me, when up to then I had no clue of how to lead my life. In fact I had made an awful mess of trying. I was especially fortunate the first ten years of my discipleship fell during Sri Chinmoy’s lifetime. The second have been spent since his passing, but are no less rich or rewarding. Though I meditate daily, sing songs my Guru composed, and read his writings, it would take more than a lifetime to absorb and apply even a fraction of these gifts.
Often Sri Chinmoy would take spiritual questions from an individual, and often his replies would be published for all to read. So many spiritual challenges are universal, as are the spiritual truths and inspirations a Master may give to answer them. But a significant aspect of Sri Chinmoy’s path is the idea that each person has a soul unique in all Creation, albeit a perfect spark of one Source. Spiritual progress is intertwined with the recognition of that soul – of the Source within us – and with bringing it to the fore in daily life. While the Goal of spiritual practice may be the same for all, the route is unique for each.
I was not outwardly all that close to Sri Chinmoy, and never had the opportunity to ask him spiritual questions. Rarely I had occasion to ask practical questions by letter, and yet more rarely he would address me directly in speech. If I could distil the outer portion of this teaching, it would have three points:
- Speak up
- Do what gives you joy
Simple, but not easy. Though concise and comprehensible, these prescriptions actually form more than a lifetime’s inner work for me. Yet they have already afforded me inner wealth beyond my imagining.
The first thing I should tell you, in case you don’t know, is that I’m a life-long introvert. Like Merton, if I thought the spiritual life would mean solitude – especially a complete withdrawal from speech – I would seriously consider it, albeit for different reasons. Mostly I can manage conversation with one person at a time, although the duration needs must vary. But when my voice reaches more than one set of ears, it is prone to falter. The facts and stories in my mind – generally well-ordered and filed, at least by category if not strictly by date – break or dissolve entirely under the pressure of presenting them. I would my mind could be so blank in meditation.
Many have tried to ‘cure’ me – trials by fire, as it were – but these experiments have only ended in further disaster. Such sea changes clearly cannot happen by force, if at all. There is no medicine for introversion anyway, as it is not an illness to be healed. While it is seen as weakness by an extrovert-led society, I have come to discover its strength. This is beautifully illustrated in a recent post by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew:
The real power-players today aren’t those who hold the big, external positions of leadership. They are the people who are calm, creative, able to step away from events, see them clearly, imagine new ways to frame them, and launch fearlessly back into that good work. They are willing to see both the big picture and the details. They are undaunted by the slow pace of creation. They love the process more than the product. They are people whose hearts are open to change, who create from that vulnerable, open place.
Indeed introversion need not equal a lack of confidence, and I believe that is what my Guru sought to teach me. True confidence has nothing to do with ego or audible volume – it is a deep inner quality, founded on the bedrock of the Source. And it is there I continue to search for it in myself – with varying success, but with an ever-clearer picture of my goal.
Of course, introversion is a great asset when it comes to writing. A writer must closet herself away from interference and distraction. Writing is neither simple nor easy, but I don’t find it anywhere near the onerous task poor Merton hints at. If speaking can one day bring me half as much enjoyment as writing, I’ll be jolly glad (and utterly amazed). Sri Chinmoy encouraged writing as a companion to the spiritual life. He himself wrote prolifically, and published hundreds of books, including thousands on thousands of poems. He recommended his disciples write down any experiences we may later find of inspiration. Even advanced aspirants cross bleak deserts on their journeys, and may even lose their way entirely. To recollect times of special insight or joy can help to reorient the seeker, and recalibrate inner instruments.
Requiring discipline, concentration and a courageous search within, writing itself can be its own sadhana. To write heightens my inner senses, and drives me to authenticity. On a human level, writing empowers the introvert in me – giving her time to compose her thoughts without interruption, contradiction or awkward silences. She may also imagine she is speaking to one person at a time, to allay any undue fear. But most of all it is the sharpening and widening of consciousness that draws me to it. The truest reasons are the same for writing as for meditation:
Our Goal is within us. To reach that Goal we have to take to the spiritual life. In the spiritual life, the thing that is most needed is awareness or consciousness. Without this, everything is a barren desert. When we enter into a dark place, we take a flashlight or some other light in order to know where we are going. If we want to know about our unlit life, we have to take the help of our consciousness. Let us go deeper into the matter. We know that the sun illumines the world. But how are we aware of it? We are aware of it through our consciousness, which is self-revealing. The functioning of the sun is not self-revealing. It is our consciousness of the sun that makes us feel that the sun illumines the world. It is our consciousness that is self-revealing in everything.
– Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life. The journey of India’s Soul.
Sri Chinmoy’s third prescription was given with regard to my occupation, and I could not have been more surprised had he recommended I become a construction worker, or a politician, or anything seemingly less compatible with my nature. That which has become an empowering and immensely practical piece of advice, at first baffled me completely. What has joy to do with work, I wondered. Is not work synonymous with toil, sacrifice and necessity?
By increments I have dared to follow it. I would not have thought to give myself such extravagant permission, but have found it equally liberating and practical in all aspects of living. It was as though he had handed me a kaleidoscope of wonder through which to see my life anew. In practice it is simple, but not easy. I must constantly ask myself where is the real distinction between joy and comfort. True joy is perhaps like eating a salad of fresh vegetables in every colour of the rainbow. Comfort or pleasure is like bingeing on half a packet of chocolate cookies. The latter brings only short-lived happiness and is instantly regrettable. Always we have the boon and the burden of free will.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott imagines we each have our own ‘emotional acre’ given at birth, and only we may decide how to use it. I love that image, and can see the metaphor applied to inner life in general:
As long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all. If you want your acre to look like a giant garage sale, or an auto-wrecking yard, that’s what you get to do with it.
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I imagine my acre as mostly garden – perhaps a few covered rooms with lots of windows. My acre may appear plain to those who fill theirs with tall buildings and grand belongings. Though it may have many coloured fruits and flowers, its calm spaces are deliberate and essential. My acre may be too simple for some, but to keep a space clear when all of life is bent on crowding in it is not always easy. Not easy to spot and root out the bindweed of attachment, thistles of dissatisfaction, brambles of self-deception, and the creeping moss of insecurity. Daily it must be done. Hourly, even.
Mine is not to live as conventional nuns and monks do, but I endeavour to weave my spiritual practice into all of living – working, cleaning, cooking, eating always with an eye on the metaphorical garden. That is the way not only to spot the weeds, but also to enjoy its ample delights, its sweet fragrances and pure blossoms. And so, my one imaginary reader, I look out on a copse of metaphorical cherry trees as I write to you, and I wish you happy in your own acre too.
In gratitude to Sri Chinmoy for twenty astonishing years.
(…in my subjective opinion). This is a work in progress – I hope to collect more spiritual memoirs and autobiographies here as I read them, and write more on the ones I found the best. Do leave me your own recommendations in the comments, as I’m always looking out for more. Although my reading is somewhat skewed towards the Indian tradition – because that’s the basis of my own spiritual path – I enjoy sincere spiritual writing from any background.
Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo
I would treasure this book for the brilliant writing alone, but it is also a source of spiritual inspiration and an important historical record. Written with devotion, but without stooping to sentimentality, this is a description of one of the greatest spiritual Masters ever to live, from the viewpoint of his disciple and attendant, Nirodbaran. Until the late 1930s, Sri Aurobindo lived in almost complete seclusion at his Ashram in Pondicherry. Following an injury, and up until the time of his passing in 1950, he needed closer medical attention. The author initially entered the scene as a doctor, but over time his service evolved to cover various roles, including that of stenographer for Sri Aurobindo’s immortal works of poetry. A candid, humble and intimate account.
The Master as I Saw Him
Being Pages from the Life of the Swami Vivekanada
This is such a precious and important book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I’m sure I will read it again. It is an incredibly humble but intelligent description of Swami Vivekanada’s life through the eyes of a close disciple. I found myself almost wishing Sister Nivedita had not been so humble in her writing, as I wanted to know more about her own struggles and victories, but of course that very humility is one of her greatest strengths, and she has achieved exactly what the title promises: Swami Vivekananda as she saw him. She herself is all but invisible while relating what she has learnt and what she remembers. Her Victorian use of language is delightfully precise. It has enough Western interpretation to make it relatable to a Western reader, but without losing the intensity or freshness of this remarkable life – a life instrumental in bringing Indian spiritual traditions to the West. It gives fascinating insights, not only into what it was like to be with Swami Vivekananda in person, but also into his teachings. It is moving and often breath-taking, without at any point being sentimental.
My Guru and His Disciple
I absolutely love this book. I almost wished I could wipe it from my memory as soon as I’d finished it, so I could go back and discover it anew right away. Isherwood’s writing itself is a work of genius – his descriptions are pure elegant simplicity, completely clear windows on his experience. His honesty as a spiritual seeker is itself a triumph. The story describes his time with Swami Prabhavananda, and how he struggles to balance East and West, inner and outer life.
A Search in Secret India
For anyone seeking a spiritual teacher, or even anyone having found the right one, this story is incredibly moving. Brunton’s erudite use of language, coupled with his ruthless inner and outer search, makes this a gripping read from start to finish. Following an inner call, he spends months travelling around India, interrogating yogis, pundits and fakirs – some genuine and some not so. His descriptions of the journey alone would make a beautiful travel journal. But his descriptions of inner experiences are breath-taking, especially those in the company of the great Ramana Maharshi. I can’t believe I had not come across this book before now – it’s amongst the very finest examples of this genre.
Story of a Soul
The Autobiography of the Little Flower
Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
I highly recommend this book to any sincere spiritual seeker, regardless of religious background. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux was clearly born an extraordinary person with a unique spiritual calling, and yet her story is written straight from the heart, with such humility and simplicity, it becomes relatable. Personally I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not only physical illnesses, but also feeling pain when others are unkind. Somehow this gives me hope – for myself and for the rest of humanity – that our own struggles are not in vain.
Autobiography of a Yogi
This book probably needs no introduction, as it’s widely known and immensely popular. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. Touching to the heart, fascinating to the mind, nourishing for the soul, this is a must-read.
The Seven Storey Mountain
An Autobiography of Faith
This is a long book, and parts of it are a little prescriptive for an autobiography. Even so, I did not skip or scan a single word – partly due to Merton’s captivating honesty, and partly due to his brilliant gift for recall and description. The story charts his life from childhood in France, education in England, traveling in Italy and working in New York during the 1930s, then to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. His somewhat dour exterior gives way to sensitive and candid insights. His observation of people – including himself – is especially astute. A spiritual search can often be tortuous, so in a sense the long route adds authenticity. This is a true classic, and one I will revisit like an old friend – one who understands how it is to examine the outer world and to find it wanting in fulfilment.
Long Quiet Highway
Waking Up in America
This is one of my favourite books full stop, let alone spiritual memoirs. Natalie Goldberg’s writing itself comes from the sort of genius that makes you sit up and pay attention, whatever she happens to be talking about, but the story is compelling too, making this a real treasure of spiritual literature. Goldberg takes the reader by the hand as she struggles to make sense of life, to work out who she is and where she belongs, ultimately discovering Zen meditation and her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi. This is a vibrant, intimate, and often funny book, thanks to the author’s honesty and her passion for living authentically.
This is an unusual story, in that the author remembers experiences in past incarnations – most notably one in ancient Egypt – and links them to her present life. It’s fascinating just from a scientific and historical viewpoint as she recalls in great detail mysterious practices from thousands of years ago. From a spiritual viewpoint it is all the more captivating and inspiring, if a little terrifying in places. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s the kind of book that stays with you, for better or worse. From it I’ve found genuine encouragement to be ever more conscious in my own spiritual life.
Daughter of Fire
A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master
Following the death of her husband, Russian-born Irina Tweedie found her Sufi master during a trip to India at the age of 52. This book is the diary he told her keep, spanning five years of her spiritual journey. He insisted she wrote down everything, including her doubts and struggles. Chasm of Fire is a shorter version of her journal, but I like the transparency of this complete version. I was not very familiar with Sufism when I first read it, so I found her unfoldment of its customs fascinating and beautiful. Tweedie was the first Western woman to be trained in this tradition, and above all I admire her courage. Hers was a challenging journey to say the least, but she stuck with it through thick and thin, and her inner rewards are plain to see.
Some Thoughts on Faith
I’m not really sure where to start with this one, and I only chose one because it seemed unfair to choose three from the same author. Grace (Eventually) and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith equally deserve a mention. Lamott’s writing is not only moving, funny, courageous and relatable, but is also aesthetically brilliant. She never shies from the struggles and imperfections of being human, and so her spiritual insights and breakthroughs are all the more precious. I love everything about these books, but Lamott’s Christian calling in Traveling Mercies is particularly moving.
On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path
Stories by disciples of Sri Chinmoy
A very good introduction to Sri Chinmoy‘s life as a spiritual Master and life in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It somehow encapsulates the vast diversity of Sri Chinmoy’s activities, as well as the diversity of his students. It also illustrates the sacred bond between Guru and disciple, particularly in a modern context. Here people from various countries and backgrounds talk about their experiences with Sri Chinmoy while he was on earth, as well as describing how their spiritual lives have continued to flourish since his passing in 2007. One gets a broad overview, but from the very personal viewpoints of many different writers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Eastern spirituality as applied to Western and modern life. A colourful, interesting read, full of contrast and variety.
Now and Then
A Memoir of Vocation
Now and Then is the second in a trilogy of short memoirs by Buechner, along with The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets. This is my favourite of the three, though I enjoyed them all. It covers the author’s rather shambling journey to seminary, and a gradual growing into life as a Christian minister. I love the stark realism in the stories, and his broad-minded approach to religion. His melancholy, self-deprecating honesty is utterly endearing, and the writing is sublime. His views on writing itself, and how it may dovetail with a spiritual life, are brave and consoling. While the sentences can be long, tiring journeys, the destination is always worth the effort. These are books I will treasure and re-visit.
I haven’t binge-read in a long time, but this book leapfrogged all the others waiting patiently on my shelf. Western culture has assumed for too long that women committing their lives to spirituality do so either because society has failed them, or because they have failed in society. If ever you thought nuns lack moxie, individuality, intelligence or social conscience, you’ll be glad to see such myths debunked. On the other hand, if (like me) you’re following a genuine spiritual path of your own, especially if (like me) you’re female, you’ll be very glad to see such myths debunked. You might even let out a Hurrah! of solidarity. These ten stories are collected by a self-confessed sceptic, straight from the mouths of nuns – nuns from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of orders, with strong views and unique characters. These are memoirs at their most raw – beautifully transparent and richly authentic.
Angels in My Hair
The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic
Another book that probably needs no introduction. Byrne’s simplicity and humility, her struggles and victories, I find most inspiring. Reading her I feel like I’m sitting down by a cosy fireside with a cup of tea. It’s as though she’s right there talking, and I’m on the edge of my seat, saying, “Tell me more!”.
Bones of the Master
A Journey to Secret Mongolia
Gritty and honest (gruesome in places) this book feels like a friend, and I missed it when it was finished. I became very fond of the characters, the descriptions of inner and outer experiences, the insights into Ch’an Buddhism, and the poetry. It inspires and instructs, powerfully but with a light touch, like a poem in itself. Highly recommended to anyone interested in spiritual memoir and/or travel writing.
At the Feet of my Master
The Oneness of an ascending heart-cry and a descending Soul-Smile
A rare and special book, written by a close disciple of Sri Chinmoy. This is a short read, but rich in content, never shying away from the hot-potato topics faced by every spiritual seeker – jealousy, insecurity, doubt, pride, et al. While at times painful, at times funny, it is consistently inspiring and illumining. An honest and intimate view of the relationship between a contemporary spiritual Master and his disciple.
Blue Like Jazz
Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality
I wasn’t sure where this book was going at first, but was soon drawn in to Miller’s sincerity. His story is meaningful because he has not taken life or spirituality at face value – he’s not afraid to take things apart and experience them for himself. Somehow faith that survives that examination has a deep strength, and I find that admirable. His writing is candid and unpretentious. Sometimes I found him a little too flippant – he gave Buddhism quite a hard time here and there for example. I’m not a Buddhist, but it made me uncomfortable at first. Then I realised that’s just how he is – he gives himself the hardest time of all. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book overall, it’s a very inspiring and refreshing read. I would recommend it to anyone from any faith with a broad-minded approach to spirituality, who is interested in deepening their own experience. Read the book rather than watching the film – it didn’t work at all for me on screen.
Girl Meets God
On the Path to a Spiritual Life
I found the candid descriptions of Winner’s journey refreshing and uplifting. She’s obviously very sincere in her spiritual quest, but she’s also very honest about her own capacities. It’s an easy read in terms of story-telling, but she shares a lot of academic and technical knowledge on Christianity and Judaism. Not knowing in detail what it’s like to be inside either religion, I found that illumining and interesting, especially when it’s put in the context of the author’s personal experience. The story doesn’t seem to have much of a structure – it’s more a collection of snapshots which make up a fuller picture – but personally I didn’t mind at all. Life is like that, so it’s somehow all the more relatable that way.
A Memoir of Faith and Discovery
This is the story of a Lutheran pastor taking his first post in a rural American town, fresh out of seminary, believing himself amply equipped for the task, if not somewhat above it. As the community inadvertently gives him one character-building challenge after another, Lischer realises the true complexity of his role, and observes his own transformation with candour and humility. I often found myself somewhere between tears and laughter, frequently thinking, “Poor fellow! whatever next?,” as I witnessed him reconciling his training, his conscience, and his earnest faith. That which seems outwardly banal is turned into a study of human strength and goodness, as heart-warming as it is eye-opening.
The Boy Who Saw True
The Time-Honoured Classic of the Paranormal
Most of the story comprises the diary of a young boy, living in the north of England at the end of the 19th Century. The author at first has no idea that his special gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience are in the least unusual. He is innocent to the fact that not everyone may converse with the deceased, watch gnomes or fairies at play in the garden, or discern a person’s health and temperament by the state of his aura. Indeed such things are recorded in the same breath as everyday household news. Later, since so many topics are taboo at the time, he assumes it is simply not polite to mention them. Fortunately, with the help of teachers both worldly and ethereal, he learns to protect and nurture his talents. I found his relationships with these teachers most beautiful and moving, especially with one he sees only in visions, and first assumes must be Jesus.
Hybrid Spiritual Memoirs
Following are some good books that have a spiritual-memoir aspect.
He and I
This is a very unusual book, translated from the French original Lui et Moi. Gabrielle Bossis was a single woman – a nurse and later a playwright. Here was a friendly and vivacious person – very much in the world of work and creativity, rather than living in seclusion as a nun. Yet her inner relationship with Christ is intensely strong. The story is not strictly a memoir, but she relates the teachings to her own experiences, so it is certainly a journey of discovery. I find this book deeply moving and encouraging. It brings the Ineffable into everyday life, and reminds us that is where He most wants to be.
The Eternal Companion
Swami Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings
This is part biography and part memoir. Swami Prabhavananda’s reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda’s life and teachings are compelling and beautiful in themselves. Then there is a section towards the end where different people speak about what they remember of the Master, this dear disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It is of course inspiring to hear of the greatness of spiritual masters – their power and luminosity – but the goodness in the smallest details of life is easily overlooked. Often such actions are just as instructive; sometimes more so, because they are more relatable.
The Snow Leopard
Technically this is a travel memoir, but it has a deep spiritual foundation. Worth five stars just for the aesthetic quality of the writing, let alone the masterful weaving together of inner and outer experiences. Ruggedly beautiful.
Acedia & Me
A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life
A book about spiritual apathy and hopelessness does not sound very inspiring at first, but the author’s battle against it certainly is. Acedia & Me is partly a text-book on the subject. It’s scholarly and rigorously researched, citing writings over the centuries that show acedia to be an age-old challenge. More than that, Norris posits acedia in the modern age, offering her own experience for detecting and conquering what monastics have long considered a demon. Thus her memoirs are woven throughout, as she faces down acedia in relationships, work and the repetitions of daily life. Though peppered with humour, it is a serious book. The subject itself is not light reading, and Norris faced many difficulties in her personal life, but it’s refreshing to see someone tackle such a difficult subject. Norris affirms that spiritual progress is not always a bowl of cherries, but that’s okay. Ultimately what matters is that it’s worth the effort.
Hand Wash Cold
Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life
Karen Maezen Miller
Uplifting, honest and masterfully written. I devoured this as a story in one sitting, but it could just as well be used for reference. It’s a little didactic for my taste, but the title admits it will be, so that’s not a complaint. While instruction is the premise of the book, Maezen – a wife, mother and Zen Buddhist priest – also describes her own continuing transformation with sincerity and beautiful prose. The main themes are self-acceptance and the sanctity of everyday life – the idea that paying attention to the ‘ordinary’, and taking it as spiritual practice, can lead to an extraordinary experience. I am always glad to be reminded of this alchemy, and it’s always worth celebrating.
Other Spiritual Memoirs I Enjoyed
Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong
Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis
The Initiate in the New World, Cyril Scott
Six Lighted Windows, Swami Yogeshananda
A Search in Secret Egypt, Paul Brunton
The Autobiography of an Indian Monk, Shri Purohit Swami
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander
Writing the Sacred Journey
Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir
Elizabeth Jarret Andrew
Thinking of writing your own story, but not sure where to start? This is surely a treasure trove for any budding, struggling, or thriving memoirist. It’s meticulously researched – both inwardly and outwardly – showing a rich depth of understanding. There is also a refreshingly broad use of the term “spiritual”, beyond the more obvious religious experience, to include any inner quest for meaning through outer life: whether via nature, or the death of a loved one, or even via writing itself. I only wish I’d found this book before I started writing Auspicious Good Fortune!
One of the very (very) few German words I know is the one for hedgehog. I don’t remember where or why I learned it, but it stuck in my head because igel sounds like eagle, and there can be no two creatures more dissimilar. In fact there are not many creatures similar to the hedgehog at all.
These curious urchins have been in Britain for 15 million years, yet they’ve been driven to the brink of extinction in recent decades, perhaps soon to topple into obscurity with their erstwhile peers – the woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth tiger.
The culprits? Over-zealous gardeners and developers, scatterers of poisonous slug-pellets and builders of impenetrable fences. I’ve heard from local enthusiasts these pint-sized neighbours will walk 2 miles a night in search of sustenance, and can eat up to their own body weight in food. I’d rather not imagine what that feels like.
My first introduction to the species came shortly before leaving for America, where no such creatures live – the porcupine being but a distant cousin. I was given a tiny bookshelf for my second birthday, holding the complete works of Beatrix Potter in tiny hardback volumes.
Mrs Tiggy-winkle was amongst my favourite characters – along with Squirrel Nutkin, (Mr) Jeremy Fisher, and the stalwart Peter Rabbit. As with many a children’s story in those days, horrid dangerous things happened to the main characters, especially if they’d been naughty. Mrs T, resident of Catbells in Cumbria, was a notable exception. She was far too busy to go about courting mischief.
The little person made a bob-curtsey – “Oh, yes, if you please’m; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; oh, yes if you please’m, I’m an excellent clear-starcher!” And she took something out of a clothes-basket, and spread it on the ironing-blanket.
“What’s that thing?” said Lucie – “that’s not my pocket-handkin?”
“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a little scarlet waist-coat belonging to Cock Robin!”
And she ironed it and folded it, and put it on one side.*
I can tell you for certain you wouldn’t want to trust your clear-starching to a hedgehog, no matter what clear-starching is. When they walk they look as though they’re daintily lifting their hems, but they can smell a slug or worm three inches underground, and are quite happy to dig for it. Their little webbed paws turn into boots of soil, which doesn’t seem to bother them a bit.
How do I know? I’ve recently taken up a new post as part-time stay-at-home daughter – the other part remaining as designer. There is quite a garden to oversee, and I’m woefully inexperienced, but we take a very flexible view of perfection when it comes to the outdoors. This is good practice for a die-hard perfectionist. Nature will, after all, do as she pleases.
And nature may be cruel at times. Blackbirds are my favourite creatures of the air – for their jubilant songs and for their exemplary work ethic. They toil all hours to raise their young this time of year, and it smarts to see the remains of that labour after the sparrowhawk has paid a call. But she has mouths to feed as well. Not everything can thrive – not even one’s favourites – so balance is perhaps the best objective.
“That isn’t my pinny?” said Lucie.
“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a damask table-cloth belonging to Jenny Wren; look how it’s stained with currant wine! It’s very bad to wash!” said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.
Mrs. Tiggy-winkle’s nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and she fetched another hot iron from the fire.
“There’s one of my pocket-handkins!” cried Lucie – “and there’s my pinny!”
Mrs. Tiggy-winkle ironed it, and goffered it, and shook out the frills.
“Oh that is lovely!” said Lucie.*
Since we have our hearts set on growing greens, fruits and flowers, we face a moral dilemma. I could not physically kill a slug, and nor would I want to, but there is little point growing food and effectively handing it out as alms to the slug population. Anything within reasonable reach is considered a free buffet by these ill-mannered gatecrashers.
We have everything in pots with awkward rims, covered in petroleum jelly and tied round the top with copper taping. Anyone bold enough to traverse the gravel will then be faced with a gastropodic obstacle course.
Which, I’m assured by gardeners more seasoned than myself, is not enough. So, not wanting to get our hands dirty with actual murder, we’ve hired a mercenary.
Her terms are quite particular. She wants a low dwelling with a front door facing a wall or fence in a quiet and rustic corner of the garden. She wants free access to surrounding properties (ideally four additional). She wants fresh rainwater and a little food provided daily – though not bread and milk as people tend to assume. Since she is carnivorous, I leave that side of things to my mother.
I say she as we assume this is the ‘sow’, and her occasional visitor is a roaming ‘boar’, though it’s hard to tell them apart in their country fashions. We’re hoping for an ‘array’ come summertime, though that term rather conjures up carpet samples, or gloves in a department store display, than a litter of blind and spineless offspring.
It’s best not to count one’s chickens, or hoglets in this case, but our little harvest is so far flourishing. Spinach is happily billowing out its big green sails, rocket is shooting sunwards and chard is champing at the bit. Even young delphiniums – apparently a delicious item on any buffet menu – remain untouched by mollusc mouths.
“Oh, that’s a pair of stockings belonging to Sally Henny-penny – look how she’s worn the heels out with scratching in the yard! She’ll very soon go barefoot!“ said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.
“Why, there’s another handkersniff – but it isn’t mine; it’s red?“
“Oh no, if you please’m; that one belongs to old Mrs. Rabbit; and it did so smell of onions! I’ve had to wash it separately, I can’t get out the smell.”*
While building the ‘house’, I petitioned my mother not to tell my friends how I spent the weekend, lest they thought I’d lost my marbles permanently. I could be seen weaving lengths of purple dogwood into a wire frame – quite feverishly, before it turned too brittle to use, or too thick to fell in the first place.
How much care went into that little home, how many planning meetings passed, and how many minor injuries were sustained in its construction. We double insulated with bubblewrap and lined it with plastic for the wetter months. We hewed out a back door for deliveries, and fitted CCTV (for our own entertainment more than for her security). We stopped short of washing lines and clothes horses.
Since my early introduction to Mrs T, I’ve always had the sense of hedgehogs being too absorbed in their own service to seek out trouble or to meddle in other people’s affairs. Just so, it seems the real Mrs T is proving an asset to her community.
I find myself wondering what quality Sri Chinmoy would have assigned to the humble hedgehog. In his book Animal Kingdom, we find the duck symbolises discrimination, the buffalo wisdom, the rabbit sincerity, the jackal roguishness, and tortoise immortality. The eagle is vision, but the igel is not listed. Were the post of service not already filled by the squirrel, that would have been my best guess, but whatever the answer, no doubt it would have been a great surprise.
And how small she had grown – and how brown – and covered with PRICKLES!
Why! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.*
- * Words and images from Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, by Beatrix Potter, first published by Frederick Warne, 1905. Now in the public domain, and available at Project Gutenberg »
- More on the dilemma of slugs and non-violence at tejvan.co.uk »
- More on Beatrix Potter and the Lake District at ezinearticles.com »
- If you’re a fellow fan of Beatrix Potter and haven’t seen it, the film Miss Potter is worth a look
Do 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.
“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
Were I to set more store by the zodiac, I’d blame it on a Cancerian date of birth. Perhaps it has more to do with past-life experience, or maybe it’s just one of those things. Either way, the fact remains: my thoughts about leaving the house generally range from ambivalence to reluctance.
I use the word house loosely, as it is neither manor nor cottage, nor even a town maisonette, but a single room by a railway line. I fancy I could live quite well somewhere as an anchoress, so long as there’d be Wi-Fi, and deliveries posted through a hatch in the wall. The only other concession might be a little patch of garden. A kettle. A heated towel rail. I wouldn’t ask for much.
What could impel me then to squash bedding and four days’ clothing into an improbably tiny cabin bag? What could induce me to share a room for five where mounting (and especially dismounting) a bunk will require the strangest contortions? What could draw me to the cattle-truck confines of a budget airline, not knowing where my next good cup of tea will come from?
“Joy Days, Joy Days! Nothing gives me as much joy as Joy Days. When my children meet together to pray, meditate and play, they feed their souls, they feed their hearts, they feed their physical existence. What else do they need?”
– Sri Chinmoy, The Temple and the Shrine
Reaching the Pyrenees meant an overnight in Lourdes – two trains, a bus, a brief hotel, another bus, plane and cab away from my northern English home. Though life has brought me almost no experience of Christianity, I felt a kind of kinship with my fellow passengers – most of them clearly pilgrims, and in various states of health. I’ve waited in many an airport queue to have my tickets inspected, my bags rummaged and my person scanned for weapons. Never have I seen a queue so cheerful, so calm or polite than the one for Lourdes.
At Lourdes we would be three, and could make a small adventure between us. Although it rained prolifically, doggedly – one could almost say spitefully at times – everything but our enthusiasm was dampened. I was struck by how real and recent was the life of Saint Bernadette. I think of saints as trapped in medieval carvings or unlikely illustrations, their humanness censored and their stature extended out of all proportion. How is one then to separate miracles from the vagaries of imagination?
Like Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernadette Soubirous was alive in the late 19th Century. She has photographs. I have seen her little wooden shoe behind glass, the dress she embroidered, letters she wrote home to her brother from the convent in Nevers. I’ve stood inside le cachot – the dungeon – where she lived in poverty with her family at the time of the visions. I’ve looked on the very bed where she slept.
While the countless gift shops are rather too gaudy and sentimental for my taste, the atmosphere at Lourdes is distinctly numinous. It also has particular qualities one might call feminine. That which is pure, gentle and nurturing is often overlooked in the West, written off as trivial or weak. I wonder, is that why God chose a simple girl of 14 to receive the visions, and specifically visions of a young Virgin Mary?
There was to be a military parade in the town that weekend, soldiers from many countries convening for services, marching the streets in elaborate uniforms, marking time with drums and shiny brass instruments. While that seemed to me rather incongruous, I suppose the chance arrival of the Peace Run seemed to them equally so! We could not light our torch, but unfurled our banner all the same, and processed to the sacred grotto for prayers and pictures.
Queuing for water in the rain may sound pointless, but it was the only way to drink from the spring that appeared at the feet of Bernadette. Families waited with us under capes and umbrellas, chattering in various languages, filling anything from their hands to glass phials and plastic gallons. Lourdes may not be an outwardly peaceful place, but inwardly, yes, and a happy place too. I was often reminded of our own gatherings in New York. Time slows down. The boundaries between people are softer than usual.
What was once a rubbish dump is now a shrine, trailed with vines and wild roses. One can pass by the edges of the cave and touch its surface. Long candles of white and blue blaze at the entrance, and thousands more wait their turn on covered tables, imbued with the prayers of those who offered them. The enormous basilica of grey stone grows as though from out of the rocks. The river Gave churns and tumbles beside it, all milky molten turquoise.
* * *
Our true destination was Gavarnie – its falls forming the source of that very river. Sri Chinmoy encouraged a special bond between our French and British Centres, and asked that we all meet four times a year for Joy Days. We may do the same things each time – meditating, singing, playing games, sharing meals, news and inspiration – but each brings a new experience.
After a languorous breakfast, most of us walked. Some of us ran. Even from the window of our gîte, I struggled to take in the scene. First there was the fat green of the ground, acres of open meadow, each blade in its Sunday best, the leaves and needles of trees outgrowing their winter jackets to stretch out bare and shiny.
But up there, where there would be sky, was an amphitheatre of limestone, dark and ruckled, draped in snow, crested in ice, coddled in cottonwool clouds. And drawn down the middle as though in dusty chalk, La Grande Cascade, the highest waterfall in all of France. Only then came the canopy of violet blue, and a very buoyant sun.
The warm air rang with birdsong. Butterflies were at their leisure, playing tag on the breezes – black, white, orange, yellow. Even ants and flies and beetles looked well fed. Bees were just as comfortably off, surveying their estates and muttering approval – blue gentians and purple orchids, too brilliant for the focus of human eyes.
The scent of pine in cool arbours. The scent of earth in sunlight. Trails were dotted with seasoned hikers and Sunday ramblers, tracking the river upstream to its source. Giant raptors wheeled above in their dozens – vultures or eagles, too high to tell. Below, each crevice spilled with melting snow and white noise. It chuckled and funnelled into pools sheer as glass, then drove recklessly on, crashing and overtaking itself, ecstatic to be free of mountain stone at last.
Whoever thought to build a hotel so high? That meant a cup of tea. A good cup of tea, and all the better for climbing. We talked of concerts, classes, other Joy Days past and yet to come. We stared into the splendour and said nothing at all – that comfortable silence enjoyed only in the best of company. The more intrepid clambered over a moonscape to the snows and the falls. Donkeys lumbered up the slope to be tethered by the grass, so their little passengers could shout and run and drink soda.
In time we ambled back to the village, ate bowls of ice cream made of local berries, and sat amongst the meadow flowers listening to cuckoos. We drove to Luz-Saint-Sauveur for galettes with native cheeses and crêpes with sweet marrons, then scrambled into our bunks to read, welcoming the sudden sleep that follows a day in mountain air.
Most left next morning with the Peace Run, and there were three of us again. We met nobody on our walk that day, save the birds, butterflies, and Notre-Dame des Neiges – Our Lady of the Snows. Her statue towers over Gavarnie, holding the child Jesus aloft as he blesses all beneath. Warmth, purity, gentleness against a rugged, icy backdrop.
All was silent but the wind across the peaks. The feminine aspect of the divine again celebrated for its subtle yet powerful grace. Absorbed in her devotion, Notre-Dame is at once perfectly vulnerable and perfectly invulnerable. In the words of Bernadette, “One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them.” [Source]
Driving to Lourdes I realise I’m not ready to go back home. Strange for a would-be anchoress. These days have surely fed the soul, fed the heart, fed the physical existence. What else do I need?
This adventure inspired me to find out more about Saint Bernadette. If you’re ever interested in doing the same, I highly recommend Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous in Her Own Words, by René Laurentin. This is a real treasure, meticulously researched and carefully presented. Laurentin has endeavoured to stand back and let Saint Bernadette speak for herself as much as possible. At first glance this seems like a rather hefty textbook, but Bernadette comes to life so clearly in the pages, the result is enthralling. She feels accessible not only through the relative recency of her life (1844-1879), but also through her very human struggles, her simple background and her pragmatic nature. I had trouble putting this book down.
Statistically speaking, I am over halfway through this life. The longer I live, the less I seem to know, but the less it seems to matter. Take times tables, for example. Some people have a knack for ball sports, and some for line drawings. In either case there’s a certain amount of progress to be made through practice, but essentially you either have it or you don’t. Quite so with mental arithmetic.
In my day, it was implied that without an intimate knowledge of The Tables, one would be cast out of society, or remain unemployed at the very least – as though an interviewer might do a spot check, and could not be trusted to choose one of the friendlier numbers. With tens, fives, twos, most of the elevens and threes, I could get by. Fours would be pushing it, and anything else would be disastrous.
“You can’t carry a calculator around with you everywhere,” the teachers would say. That was a valid point in the seventies, when calculators were the weight of roof tiles, with buttons the size of postage stamps. True, sometimes I’ll be asked what six nines are, or eight sevens, but clearly only because the person asking has forgotten, so I dare admit I haven’t the faintest idea. Not knowing the time of day can be swiftly remedied by taking out a smartphone. So also the gaps in my times tables can be bridged at will.
We surely live in a fortunate age. Information can be gleaned or shared quickly when necessary, but analog methods are still open to us. One only need type a word into a box for its past and present to be revealed in more detail than is even necessary. Arguably that’s progress, at least in a sense. I don’t look back entirely fondly on history, but I do also fear losing its values. Given a reasonable choice I’ll still read from a printed book. There can be no virtual substitute for the whisper of a page turning, the scent of paper, the weight in the hand.
A friend recently got me hooked on Cadfael – a fictional medieval monk with a talent for solving crimes. One story surrounds the value of books in the 1100s. There was no paper as such, but only vellum, painstakingly fashioned from animal skins. Messages were thus rarely written down. Instead they were learned and repeated by couriers on horseback or foot. To read was a great privilege in itself, and to write yet more so. An illustrated book could be a work of art so priceless a person may literally kill to own it. (Or may not in a given case – let us have no spoilers here).
When I was growing up, our most valuable reading matter was the encyclopaedia. Probably it was sold to my parents by a travelling salesman who knocked on the door. What pressure must have been on that generation to retain as much information as possible! You either knew a thing or you didn’t. There was no finding out without the encyclopaedia, or a trip to the library. Even then, to unearth the right book might need assistance from expert librarians with microfiches.
The encyclopaedia had a finality and a gravity to it, partly as a single volume could only just be lifted with two small hands. It had the peculiar aroma of must and almond sweetness that books acquire in time. The covers were of black faux-leather, hard and scaly to touch. Opening a volume was like opening a small tomb where a fading past was buried. It was approached with almost funereal reverence.
Mars could properly be found in the same book as marsupials, mollusks and Monroe, Marilyn. Babylonia was correctly filed with Beethoven and the bubonic plague. If certain people became important, or significant things were suddenly discovered, they would have to wait for the yearbook. Over time, the neat order and classification would thus be increasingly disturbed. I found that disturbing. The all-knowing encyclopaedia was, by its very nature, incomplete and out of date.
I suspected I’d need to absorb all the contents of that collection on the long journey to adulthood, so as to arrive equipped for anything. Who knew when I might need to distinguish between a freshwater perch and a pike, demonstrate semaphore and sailing knots, or identify the flags of Tanzania and Mozambique. But there was plenty of time for that.
Meanwhile I would dwell mostly on the anatomy sections, as they had more than their share of coloured plates. There were leaves of transparent paper that stuck to the fingers, displaying layers of the body from skin to skeleton. I imagined turning back my own skin like the page of a book, to find tendons and muscles, impressive arteries and bones with funny names written next to them.
Nowadays I have little space for keeping books, and usually pass them on once finished. Sri Chinmoy‘s writings are the exception, though I only own a fraction of those printed. My favourites are the Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees. Naturally I will always wish there were more of them – as with any of Sri Chinmoy’s creations – but that’s just human greed. Actually there is more instruction, illumination, inspiration in a single volume than one could need in a lifetime.
In a sense, I even like the fact that the series is “unfinished” – a sort of ellipsis leading to timelessness, at the end of the fiftieth book. The poems are eternally relevant, so there can be no real beginning or ending to them anyway. On the surface they may be simple – a single one might take a moment to comprehend mentally, and to learn by heart a little longer – but to live its essence authentically is another matter, and therein of course is its highest value.
Sometimes I read a volume in sequence, but more often I open one at random. Turning each page is like turning back layers of spiritual anatomy. I recognise doubt, pride, insecurity, as I know my own skin, blood and bone. Aspects of human ignorance are peeled away further to reveal their transcendent solutions. These are in turn strict and consoling, forthright and comforting, sometimes humorous and others almost melancholic in their understanding of human struggles. Always they are fresh and lively.
Probably I will never know my times tables, and presumably will not be able to identify all the flags of the world in this lifetime. Inner wisdom is not even so easily won as outer knowledge, but spiritually speaking it is far more practical. Sri Chinmoy returns to this theme many times in the series itself:
To the wisdom-sun.
My spirituality rises
Not on the horizon
Of my knowledge-might
But on the horizon
Of my wisdom-light.
A very short breath.
Is limited strength.
Is unlimited power.
The outer knowledge is
The inner knowledge is
The choice of illumining wisdom
We must make,
And not the choice of precise knowledge.
All poems by Sri Chinmoy, from Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees