Perfect peace

The sun had shone on a perfect day, buzzing with the sound of summer. The air was full of small noises… the distant squeals and laughter of children playing, insects busily going about their job, music carried on the breeze, the tearing of grass beyond the garden fence where the cattle munch their way through the lush green field and the constant song of birds. It was one of those days where you could read the season from its soundtrack, even here in the village.

Much later, I sat outside while the dog dozed in the cool night air and there was silence. It wasn’t just quiet … there was no breeze to rustle the leaves on the trees, no wisps of speech from late-night television wafting through open windows…not even the usual muted roar of the occasional car on the main road. With the door closed behind me to keep the moths safely outside, the quiet whirrs and hums of appliances could no longer be heard. The silence was complete.

I love the night… I always have. As a girl, in a more innocent world, I loved to walk long after dark, feeling the change in the city streets as people closed their doors and curtains, withdrawing their life, gathering it in to the centre of hearth and home. It was never silent, but there was a quieting of human presence… a strange, psychic ‘space’ and peace in the empty streets. I would watch the stars… at least, those that could compete with the sulphurous glow of the city… and I would dream.

It was, perhaps, an odd way for a young teenager to spend her evenings, but somehow there was a sense of security in that silent solitude. It was the one time in my day when I felt I could be no more and no less than me. There was no parental expectation, no teenage self-image to create or maintain for peers, no awkward self-consciousness, just a consciousness of Self as I set my mind free to wander. It was, I suppose, my introduction to the kind of walking meditation I would learn in later years.

But this evening was different. Deliberately becoming consciousness of the body is a technique often used in meditation. It encourages awareness of the here and now. But this was not the same; it was not deliberate at all, but a moment that arose spontaneously and brought with it a sense of peace and wonder all of its own.

There was a stillness to the night that is rare… a perfect pause. The absence of any kind of noise only seemed to enhance the vibrancy of the life around and within me. The only ‘sounds’ came from my own body and they were ‘heard’ only within. Observing and following my attention as it seemed to dance deeper, I was aware first of the constant whine of the tinnitus, a false sound that is only exacerbated by silence. I became conscious of each breath, of the blood in my veins and the beating of my heart, as I ‘listened’ to the silent rhythm of my body’s life and knew it for a tiny part of something vast and beautiful… just one small note in a great symphony.

There was a clarity to the moment, knowing that the body we inhabit is not who we are, that the mysterious thing we call life may animate, but exists beyond, the physical machine. That the life I think of as my own is simply a drop in a great well from which all life is drawn and in which we all share, from the warm, summer grass to the snuffling hedgehog, from the moths drawn irresistibly to the light behind the curtains to the dog snoring at my feet.

I thought about the scientific premise, so easily observed, that energy is never lost… it simply changes form or state when it reaches an apparent end.  As summer blossoms, the energy of the sun is captured and forms flowers. With summer past its zenith, the blooms fade , revealing their burgeoning fruits and seeds while the petals decay and disappear, becoming one with the earth from which they arose, the source of next year’s flowers.

Will the energy that is ‘me’ one day do the same? Not just the physical form returning to its component parts, but that invisible something we call life? My own belief is that it does, returning to its source as fuel for future lives, and, in the silence, I wondered whether what I have borrowed from the well will be returned depleted, enriched…or simply in its original state? And yet, I thought, did  an answer really matter? Any borrowed gift must always be respected and returned  with care.

Perhaps darkness is the time for unanswerable questions. The dog yawned and shifted. I felt closer to her than ever, feeling the shared bond of life as I reached down to bury my hands in her fur.

A link in the chain

sunset over the hills

“… and one of these days you will know a world in which I no longer exist.”
“I don’t know that I can imagine that.”
“Possibly not. I have always been part of your world. Before you were born, you could say that I was your world… all your physical experience, at least, came through me…”
“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way before…”
“…so a world without me is not within your experience, and might be as hard for you to imagine as a world without you. No point of reference.”

The subject of mortality had been brought to our attention by the passing of a neighbour and friend, a woman whose kindness and wisdom had brought something special to the world. The simple Quaker funeral of a shared silence had been both beautiful and moving, as we each turned our thoughts to how her presence had changed our lives, making the moment one of gratitude and recognition instead of an occasion given solely to grief. Her actions had been the small ones of every day, her life outwardly unremarkable… and yet she had made a huge difference to the lives of her family, friends and neighbours. From her funeral to a deeper conversation was not a big step.

It was an interesting discussion. Because most of us live what we consider to be rather ordinary lives, we do not realise how big an impact we might make. We seldom think about how different things might be for others had we not been around. What might, or might not have happened had we never been.

For a start, how do you imagine not being? You might imagine your own demise… and, in melodramatic moments, there may even be a vague satisfaction or discontent when you consider the aftermath of that event within your intimate circle. A sort of ‘you’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ scenario… even though you will not be there to know about it.  You may be able to picture a future from which you are missing… but when you do so, you are looking at it through your own eyes and therefore it is a false image… you will not be there to see it. The ‘you’ you are now will no longer exist.

Even less can we conceive of a world in which we have never been. Any attempt to subtract ourselves from the reality we know, will have so many ramifications that such a world truly is impossible to imagine.  The thousands of lives we have affected or will affect, directly or indirectly, from the moment of our conception, down the generations, to the furthest ends of time, would each of them be changed had we never come into being. Many of those lives might never exist, were we never to have been. Subtract just one person from existence… not by death, which is a natural part of life, but by erasing them from the annals of time altogether… and the whole course of human history would inevitably change.

It is difficult to accept that any one of us could be that important. We are conditioned to think otherwise… we are, most of us, too small on the stage of history to play much of a part, or so we believe… and yet every one of us is a necessary link in the chain of human being as we know it. The smallest action of least of us can create a domino effect through countless lives and generations, and we have no way of knowing where the chain reaction might end or what it might ultimately inspire.

Does it serve any practical purpose to know that one of our descendants, generations into some unknown future, might find a cure for cancer or invent the device that will damn the world? Perhaps not… we cannot control the future to that extent. We can only help shape the possibilities that come within our reach. And that we can do.

We are not only essential links in the chain of existence, but we are, inevitably, each of us teachers too. The way we live our lives sets an unconscious example that may inspire others, or against which they will react and rebel. The way in which others react is out of our control… only our own choices and attitudes are within it, and most of those are our own reactions to or against the actions of others. It is a complicated web of interaction, and we are responsible for our own thread within it.

We may never know how our actions affect the lives of others. A simple smile may light up an otherwise dark day for a stranger in the street, a small kindness may alter a mood, every word we speak and every action we take may be an example for someone else. We do not need to know what effect our lives may have in the greater story of humanity, but we owe it to ourselves to walk in awareness of the infinite possibilities that surround us every day.

At the end of the funeral, everyone present had reached out to shake the hand of their neighbours, a simple human touch. Faces were solemn as we paid our final respects, but it was remarkable how many eyes smiled at each other, as each of us remembered our friend. It had been a silent celebration of a life well lived… one small thread in the story… but one which touched the heart and set an example of empathy and care that many will carry forward into our own lives.  “She shone, you know. There was just something about her…” said my son. Just by being herself, our friend changed the world. So can you.

Pause for thought

14 sept 599

For a good many years, my days have begun very early and ended very late. For most of that time, I have been working, whether it has been on the nine-to-five treadmill (which very seldom was just nine-to-five), doing housework and gardening, cooking or writing…or the myriad other jobs that come with adulthood, parenthood and the age of responsibility. Weekends and the misnamed ‘holidays’ simply exchanged one task for another, fitting the things I wanted to do in between those I had to. Even meditation periods become part of the routine, slotting in between other necessities. It doesn’t really matter whether you love what you are doing or not…and I do… it is the constant motion of the wheel of doing that gets hold of us. Escaping the hamster wheel is a dream many share, but for most of us, a dream is all it may ever be.

The trouble is that we get caught up by what we do… and the more we do, the more it holds us. We start to believe that if we don’t do it, no-one else will… or that we do it best/quickest/most efficiently. Even worse, for many of us, especially in the domestic arena, that is probably true…simply because we have been doing it for so long that we have grown efficient through long habit. Even when the need is no longer there, we still carry on with the old ways, sticking to the same routines because we do them on autopilot. When something forces us to stop for a while, it feels odd, things nag at us somewhere below the surface and we find it hard to switch off.

There is a constant pressure of routine that creates an unconscious level of chronic stress that has been shown to have adverse effects on health, weight, sleep and emotional wellbeing. It is insidious and we don’t even notice it, so deeply ingrained does it become.

It took me a while after the boys had all left home and I was living alone with the dog, to realise that actually, I wouldn’t be burned at the stake if I didn’t dust and polish every morning. The sky would not fall if I didn’t do the laundry every day and I would neither starve to death nor be ostracised by society if I chose not to cook. In fact, if it wasn’t for the dog, her toys and her fur, I would actually have very little around the house that had to be done every day. Okay, I would keep the place nice for me… and for any unexpected visitors… but it was no longer an imperative.

I let it be and relaxed.

Twiddled my thumbs for a bit.

Then found I had filled all the spare time I had released with other ‘jobs’.

Downsizing was next… one almighty burst of activity and I’d be in a small flat that would take much less upkeep! Except it doesn’t. I’m still only using the same area as before, but the dog, her toys and her coat can  access all areas… so the hamster wheel kept turning. Until the first virus hit. For a few days, I couldn’t have cared less where I was. For the next few days, I didn’t care about anything except much and spent the time cuddled on the sofa with the dog. We slept through a number of mindless DVDs and a couple of excellent ones too. I managed to stay awake for much of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and it was watching that film that woke me up.

Dame Judi Dench plays a woman in her seventies who, although relatively recently widowed, has fallen in love, but is afraid of the new relationship. “I just need more time,” says her character to another woman. “How much time do you have?” she replies. Which got me thinking.

I am nowhere near my seventies… not yet. But how much time do any of us have? It is an unknown factor. We stay in the hamster wheel of duty and necessity, looking towards a ‘one day’ that may never, for a multitude of possible reasons, happen. And for most of us, getting off that wheel entirely, simply through choice, is an impossibility. We seem to be programmed to be doing.

But we can slow it down, making space in each day for doing … nothing. For simply sitting in the sun. Meditating. Watching the stars. It doesn’t matter… it just has to be time. Time to actively, deliberately engage with doing nothing, giving it as much attention as all the rest of the doing and according it the same importance. Time to just be you.

It is not a new concept, but an ancient one. It is a simple thing. An hour a day… half an hour… just time to leave everything, let it wait and just be.

Like all the habitual things we do in a day, doing nothing seems to make space for itself…time you did not think you had…and you come back from it refreshed.

Give it a try.

Silence

sheffield book weekend 450

In a silence broken only by breath

Words lose their sound;

Spill their essence on the pristine page

Or curl in tendrils through a mind undone,

Fleeing logic on wings of fantasy.

Fabled spectres rear their heads,

Horned dilemmas bow before a ghost

Of newborn Understanding,

Mewling helpless in a night

Of infant shadows.

The dreamer dreams the song,

Seeking music in a voice,

A poem in the starlit dark

To break the silence

And give birth to sound.

Muted whispers kiss the soul

That stays to listen in the darkness

Reaching for the Word it almost hears

Until it knows the only sound

Is life’s first breath

Sighing in the silence.