We took a stroll around the garden… my son leaning on my shoulders, me grateful that I am just the right height to fit under his arm. Weather permitting, it has become a daily ritual since we planted his new flower beds. I cannot help but smile quietly when my hitherto clueless-about-gardening son comments on how well the heuchera is doing and notes that the ajuga reptans is in flower.
My younger son prefers to grow vegetables and nourishes an ambition to build a greenhouse in his garden. For his birthday, a few years ago, I bought him seed potatoes, cabbages and strawberries… and that was that; he loved growing food for his family. This year, for my elder son’s birthday, just before the lockdown, I filled his wall baskets with pansies, sweet-smelling dianthus and trailing campanula, rescued from the wilting racks of the supermarket.
I love that both my sons have found joy in growing things, though one grows for beauty and the other for the table. It is interesting to see how watching things grow illustrates their different characters. There is the same excitement from both of them, but while my younger son cannot wait to show me how tall his brassicas have grown, the elder is having learn to be patient as Nature takes her time as he waits for plants to bloom.
So, every day, my son and I tour his garden, watching the progress of every leaf and bud, from the discarded forget-me-nots I rescued from the alley behind his house, to the latest acquisition, the Abracadabra rose. We have watched the tight buds swell and begin to reveal glimpses of colour. The new gardener asks ‘when’… the old gardener is just glad the roses survived being transplanted at this time of year.
Patience, I have observed, is not a trait that everyone shares. I used to be horribly impatient with most things…now it is only some things… so during my son’s recovery, I had a lot to learn. The recovery from brain injury is a long, slow process… like the unfolding of a flower, it happens at its own pace and cannot be forced. Holding back from doing something I could have done for him ten times faster than he could do it for himself was a hard lesson to learn… but had I not done so, he would have made no progress.
Not everyone is patient by nature, but watching things grow… whether it is flowers or people… helps you to learn the kind of patience that is born of accepting what is. A child cannot grow to adulthood overnight. A rose, even one named Abracadabra, cannot magically bloom before its petals have formed.
Gardening always makes me think of the well known ‘Serenity prayer’… “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…”. Patience, when rooted in the acceptance of the moment, is often a gateway to serenity.
Accepting the gifts of the moment does not mean we cannot create change at need, or that we must accept that which we know to be wrong or harmful… like greenfly and black spot on roses, some things must be addressed as they arise… but where the moment gives us joy or beauty, it would be churlish to refuse its gift. And so I watch in joy as my son learns to wait for beauty to unfold.
It can seem hard to find anything to be glad about right now. The news reports are dire, we all have our wings clipped and although there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, we have, as yet, no idea how far away that might be… or even who amongst us will be around to see it. We are worried for our loved ones, missing those we cannot see because of the restrictions, concerned about finances, both personal and global… and the worries just seem to keep on coming.
Yet, silently standing… the requisite two metres apart… in the long queue of people waiting to be allowed entry into the corner shop, I couldn’t help grinning like the Cheshire Cat. The sun was playing through the leaves of the trees, illuminating the tender greens of spring. The brightness cast shadows, highlighting the textures of bark and leaf. Banks of spring flowers were in bloom, carpets of delicate blue speedwell, bright daisies and dandelions scattered across the grass and the absence of traffic noise allowed the constant, busy chatter and chirp of the birds to be heard. The drone of bees and the quick flutter of butterflies filled the air. In spite of the worried expressions and occasional masked face, I really couldn’t help myself.
A bubble of pure joy in the moment, welling up from beyond the cares of the day, made the smile inevitable. A young man facing me caught the smile and grinned back. A couple of eyebrows were raised as if in disapproval that we could find anything to smile about, but, for the most part, that young man’s smile was as infectious as the virus that was holding us captive on the threshold of the shop… and spread even faster.
An elderly lady behind me broke the silence… just a banality, a comment about it being nice to see a bit of sun. Another woman responded. Then another. A couple of the older ones recalled the post-war rationing and one told of being evacuated from his London home. You could see tense shoulders relaxing and postures changing as, still obeying the rules on social distancing, our little group connected with each other and within minutes, were all chatting like old friends.
We may have to physically keep our distance from each other as we wait for the crisis to pass… and it will… but we do not have to forget in the meantime that we are people with stories and laughter to share, advice and help to offer and, even in these shadowed times, access to joy when the sun shines.
“You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions.
Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not.
‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’”
The Bucket List (2007)
Not bad questions are they? Together they might sum up the whole of the deeper truth of human aspiration. There is no mention of what car you managed to acquire, nor the level of material success you achieved in your life. Not pleasure, not even happiness… Just joy.
Like any word pertaining to our perception of emotion, the definition of joy is a difficult one. The dictionary attempts to define it by using superlatives of other emotions, yet those feelings are personal and their experience both subjective and subject to causative events in our lives.
Joy is something different somehow, transcending reactive emotion and welling up from a deep place, flooding the being from without and within like a clear, sparkling stream of bubbling, laughing Light. Yet though we seek the words, there are none that encompass it. Those who feel it will know it, those who have yet to feel its touch have joy to come.
It is a strange emotion, if emotion it truly is. Its touch comes in a single, blazing moment, yet the light it sheds seems to linger a lifetime, untarnished by sorrow or pain, undiluted by the cares of everyday. Once there it takes up home in the heart and whilst the surface of the mind and emotions may feel the storms and be battered by our very human lives, the kernel of joy seems to become an eternal flame, a sanctuary light at the very core of being. It is always there, underlying the ripples and tumult of emotion, no matter how terrible life and events may appear. Its presence is not dimmed by them. For this reason perhaps we might hesitate to call joy an emotion… and see it instead as a grace.
Joy comes when we are open to the full experience of life. It may touch you when you stand in a summer meadow and see the sky arcing over the hills, when you hold a newborn child, when you stand drenched and laugh at the rain clouds or when your heart feels the touch of the divine… for each of us it is different, unique in its beauty. Once felt, it never leaves, though we may choose to shut it out, turn our backs and walk away.
The second question is curious, ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’ It is not something we can give to others through choice, no matter how hard we try. It cannot be bought, gift wrapped or engendered no matter how desperately we might like to think it possible. We can, perhaps, consciously create the circumstances in which joy might be found through our actions, through our empathy, kindness and love for each other, yet we cannot be the sole cause of joy. It is akin to alchemy where the presence of certain elements can cause profound change, bringing something into being through our own being, through who we are, that may enable a response in joy from another. Perhaps it can be likened to music… where a simply melody can be picked out on a single instrument, but the full glory of the symphony can only be heard when the orchestra plays in harmony. Then the music lifts you and carries you beyond yourself to beauty.
What would you answer to those two guardians of the otherworld should they ask those questions? ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’
Sent to me by Obi, a friend and Companion of the Silent Eye:
“Let me Sue, tell you a traditional story on happiness from my people the Igbo of South east Nigeria as an example of how happiness can make one unable to do anything effectively.
A young man after the traditional marriage formalities took home his wife, with happiness, just as the young wife was happy too. The next morning as he was leaving for his farm for work, he left the young wife in the house and then brought out food for her to cook, so he could come home to a meal for the first time now in his own house and not his father’s.
When he returned, he heard a distant voice singing a traditional happiness tune, and he was thrilled by and happy at the melodious voice of his wife. She, meanwhile, was transported by emotions of joy and, singing away in total bliss, did not even notice the entry of her young husband as he came. However, the food for their first meal together was still raw and uncooked. Confused, disappointed, even angry, he called on the wife for an explanation, asking what was wrong and why he could not have his meal.
The young wife found herself in a state of total confusion and panic, with no viable explanation. It was a very serious crime, even as a first offender and you could also guess, dear friend, the magnitude of such a faux pas in a traditional setting of old folklore.
In a state of absolute terror, she went down on her knees, clutching the husband’s knees and pleading with eyes full of tears and in surrender. She could barely mutter the words that seemed to come out in solemn soft jerks as if they were not intended to form a sentence,
“My most beloved husband, brave descendant of a proud lineage, father of my children even if yet unborn, brave man who spares the erring woman, let me endure your wrath, for be reminded that the uncompassionate brave man, will end up living alone in his house stead.” She stopped for breath, then continued, her voice still trembling. “Laughter in my mouth would not allow me blow the fire into a flame so as to cook the food. My day since you left has been nothing else but joy and happiness.”
You sure can imagine dear friend, how impossible it is to blow a fire into a flame, if you are laughing, even so from happiness.
The young man, after some seconds, raised his wife to her feet, looked into her tear-soaked eyes which were even made pale by fear, and after a few seconds, a smile slowly came over his face.
He laughed out loud, sighed and then said, calling her by the most lovely names, “Truth I must confess, woman of my heart, Obi Diya, ,I was able to do practically nothing in the farm today due to shared happiness too.”
They both burst out laughing, then went to the cooking place and together prepared a lovely meal, which legend still talks of till today— but known only to a few due to the contact with the West . They had the meal and, from then ever did things together in the house or in the farm.
I think you can also imagine my friend, how impossible it is for a happy laughing heart and mouth to blow a fire into a flame.”
Possibly more than once over the weekend… it was a few days filled with laughter, learning and the kind of beauty that transcends any words we might try and use to capture its essence. How, after all, can you describe the fragrance of a rose?
And yet, it was not the only moment of joy. Nor was it the only time when emotions too poignant to be contained fell as tears. For a time out of time a group of friends…faces familiar or those attending for the first time… came together to Work.
The word may imply that we faced an onerous task, and with four of the group unable to attend due to ill health, it could have been so… but instead we shared an intense and moving experience, where people… friends and strangers alike… came together in love and laughter, stepping in to fill the gaps… sharing stories, music and knowledge, thoughts, chocolate and ideas… and generally having fun whilst riding the tide of shifting emotion as the weekend unfolded towards a very special moment.
But at least, this time, the Egyptian make-up was waterproof and a very kind member of Ramases’ Royal Guard passed me a handkerchief. Last time I had witnessed such an event, it had been the sleeves of my nice, white robe…
Of course, last time I had only been an observer; witness to an event of such beauty it will live in my memory for a very long time. This time it was me who was supposed to serenely deliver the carefully crafted speech… but that simply went right out of the window as the emotion of the moment flooded the room and I hugged the woman standing in front of me, sobbing and laughing, with, “I knew I wouldn’t get through this….”
No-one seemed to mind. It was, I think, an expression of something we were all feeling… though it did seem to set one or two of the others off as well… But then, what else can you do when there is a room full of people radiating joy and love as they celebrate an Initiation?
This was, without doubt, the most joyous moment of a wonderful weekend. This, after all, is why we… the Silent Eye… do what we do; to enable the Seeker to open the inner doors that lead towards the light of understanding and onwards… and there is such beauty in seeing that light shine from a pair of eyes illuminated by the heart, mind and soul. Sometimes even tears of joy are not enough…
The two most beautiful women I know are Teachers. I use the upper case ‘T’ quite deliberately as they teach simply by Being who they are. One, on her own admission prefers to work from the wings and stay out of the spotlight, yet her gentle and joyful Light touches all who know her. The other is known worldwide, a light around whom we flock, and both are loved deeply by many. Both are head of the group they represent. Both would, and do, simply describe themselves as little old ladies, but nothing could be further from the truth, except in purely physical terms… and even that I dispute!
They share many things, these two, not least a joyous, playful wickedness in their humour. There is a twinkle in their eye and you know there are stories they could tell. These are women who have Lived, taking the life they were given and embracing it to the full, fearlessly in spite of fear, wholeheartedly and vividly. They are both loving, kind and warm… in fact, they seem to glow with an inner radiance. Yet there is nothing soft or sentimental about them. To stand in the quiet of ritual with them is to see something quite different. These women are spiritual Teachers and they radiate joy and strength.
‘Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.’
Teilhard de Chardin
I, Steve and Stuart have been blessed to learn from both these women over the past decade and that learning continues… the seeds once planted continue to grow if they are cared for and nurtured and they will continue to be part of who we are. We may carry a different lantern these days, but the light within it is born of the same Flame, a Flame they were instrumental in igniting for us.
With the coming into being of the Silent Eye, we too found ourselves called to teach. I can’t speak for the other two, but it came as something of a shock to me. We all have experience of teaching; I had taught various aspects of the spiritual journey for years before, yet there was a gear shift here, more was required… and what I had thought was teaching suddenly took on a different hue and showed itself to have been merely the first diffident steps in my own learning. Now there was a need to step up and really learn to teach… and with these two women as examples, that is no laughing matter!
It would be easy enough to fake it on the surface… going all beatific and angelic, but one thing among many that these women have taught is that it has to be real. It has to be from the heart and soul… it has to be whole, warts and all. All of us. All of me. I have written before of the internal debate… did we have to stop being ourselves and become something else…burying who we are beneath a veneer of who we or others think we should be? No… that would indeed be hiding. The phrase naked in the desert has a habit of wandering through the mind…
I recall a conversation with one of these women about what makes a Teacher; how it requires that one keeps a foot in both worlds as it were, seeing the greater purpose behind the events of our lives. We spoke too of the decades each of us spend learning to use the gifts we are born with, of the transforming journey through life, pain and laughter towards understanding. Of the courage that is needed to be one’s whole Self, whether privately or publicly. There was talk of the human flaws we all share and of those who inspire us and how they can be seen as “special – to others.” Yet to themselves “it must remain no big thing.” She says of such people that they “fart and burp and pee when they cough like any other daft creature of our ilk. But they have Work to do.”
It tickles me, with the mental picture I have of her elegant and stately self that she chooses such words, yet she is without doubt the most down to earth person I know, as well as being one of the most genuinely spiritual. And she is right. It is a common misconception that a spiritual teacher must have found some kind of personal perfection, yet in truth what they have found is a real and all- pervading awareness of the Divine in life. Yet those true Teachers I have been privileged to meet seem to share this earthiness, this serene acceptance of all the levels of their being from the gutter to the heavens.
There is, it seems, always laughter in them, often at themselves, and sometimes tears. Emotion and experience are equally vivid, equally embraced, as are their characters, seen as the raw material of humanity within themselves. They acknowledge their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but seldom see themselves as Teachers unless that role is thrust upon them. They are simply sharing the journey with fellow travellers.
There is another side to this, for the commitment to the Light is real and demands a lifetime. It is not something one can dip in and out of. It can bring to these people both the gift of being truly with those around them with a warm immediacy, but also a certain separateness, an aloneness and sense of isolation as they see life from a different perspective that they can share only with others who have walked their particular path. And at the level of which I speak, they are as rare as unicorns. Yet there is a wholeness about them, a completeness that accepts themselves and us for who we are, seeing, perhaps beyond the outer face we wear to something profound within and recognising the kindred fire of the Divine we each of us carry. And because of this deeper vision there is a strength in them and a depth that manifests itself as Love.
At our workshop we were blessed to have some very special people. Some have been called to teach… others teach simply by the grace and joy of being themselves, unaware of what they bring. Some would shy away like a startled horse if you tried to tell them. One thing that is shared by all seems to be this joy, this inner radiance, the ability to play the fool, laugh at themselves and with others. To share a ribald joke or down a pint at the pub, to let their hair down and laugh or cry from the roots of being… what they share is humanity, rooted in earth and reflected in the stars. Shared too is their ability to teach the teachers, simply by being who they are with a whole heart. And that is a gift we can all aspire to share.
There are many paths to the spiritual life and one size does not fit all on this journey. From quiet contemplation to prolonged study; from natural wisdom to religious faith… all paths are valid for those who walk them from the heart. And for those who do so there seems to be a bubble of laughter where the world should be.