Deference? and Gratitude

When we got home that night, I asked my husband, “Did you notice that they were treating me with deference?”

He said, “Yes.”

We’d spent the late afternoon hours of tea time with our meditation teachers, and their extraordinary toddler, Lily.

I’d had a painful and frustrating underground journey from Saint Pancras station to Earl’s Court, where our teachers live; one of those frequent tube malfunctions that you take in stride – unless you need the lift; and the breakdown is the lift, in fact, all the lifts, because all the electricity in the station suddenly went off.

So I was in considerable pain, leaning heavily on my cane, when I arrived. Our teachers had never seen me look quite so affected by pain, and the worried look on their faces was touching, but also embarrassing. I assured them that I was all right as I asked for the water to take the painkillers the moment I sat down.

I was still aching two hours later, even after taking pretty strong painkillers , when we made our way to the Union Chapel where Tom Paxton was giving his last ever concert in London. Fortunately, we arrived late enough not to have to stand in the queue, and we found seats close to the stage. It was a perfect last concert, Tom’s voice as full and rich as when he started out all those years ago. He was going out in style, and I wept shamelessly through most of it. I felt drained afterward.

Yet by the time we arrived home, after midnight, greeted by our hysterically happy and hungry dogs, and had fed same, I was wide awake, elated by a wave of love and memory of the fifty years Tom was part of my life; and surprised but more or less happy to know that our teachers hold me in such esteem. I felt deep gratitude for the love and respect I felt in their company and tenderly delighted by Lily, with her devastatingly direct and real affection; and her happiness in her innocent ability to accept and love us as we were.

Unattachment – 50 years getting there

Today, at the age of sixty-eight, I think I’ve finally, finally, finally, learned the value of unattachment; have finally “got” why and how it helps us on a spiritual path. At last I comprehend that unattachment isn’t avoiding involvement or discomfort. It isn’t uncaring or distancing oneself. Rather it is the tool for experiencing life, especially difficult or complicated situations, with compassion and concern but without judgement of other people or oneself; and, thank God/dess, without soul-scorching pain.

Today I learned that no matter how compassionate and caring you are; no matter how calm and comforting; no matter how careful and precise you are with words; there are people who neither understand nor want to understand what you are doing for or saying to them.

Today, I let go of someone whom I hoped was a friend; whom I loved and supported; but who, now, several years after we met, neither needs nor wants what I offer. As usual, this sudden realization was a long time coming, and, as usual, it began with an incident that was mundane, surprising, petty and confusing. After a frenzied exchange of pretty much useless messages that lasted less than a day, I decided simply to drop it. To let it go. I felt completely and absolutely mystified, struggling to find words; she seemed irrational and unable to get what I was saying. It was pointless. The blinding flash in my brain late last night was, “Stop it. Just stop it.” So I did.

Today, this was the discovered lesson: Unattachment to outcome makes life changes bearable. Though the process had saddened me deeply (I had cried while writing e-mails), confused me, and frustrated me, when I accepted; when I sighed and said out loud, “This is what is supposed to happen,” as opposed to what I wished would happen, the pain and confusion stopped.

So today, finally, after fifty-four years, I observed myself letting go without could-haves, would-haves, maybes or any other self-recriminations. I say fifty-four years because, when I was fourteen –I remember this vividly– and stretched out on my bed weeping uncontrollably, my dad knocked and came into my room.

He asked, “Anna-Marie?”

I nodded. “She said she doesn’t want me to be her friend any more.”

Daddy looked at me for what seemed like minutes. He had warned me about her when he met her, but he didn’t say I-told-you-so. What he said was, “You’re too willing to help people. Girls who need someone find you and they take what you give. But they’re never really friends. You’ll be hurt a lot in life if you don’t learn to be more careful.”

He could have gone on to list about half a dozen girls who were my constant companions for a time, sometimes months, sometimes years; then just disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared. He could have told me stories of his own painful experiences.

But what he said was, “Most people never even have one true friend in life. If you find that one true friend, you’ll be very lucky.”

My mother was more practical and ruthless. “She hurt you. She rejected you. You don’t need her. You’ll meet a lot of people like her, and you’ve gotta’ learn how to spot them.”

It seems pretty pathetic that it’s taken me almost 60 years to learn this lesson. Mama would say that it’s because I’m hard-headed; I got that from my father. Daddy would say it’s because I wanted to help people, and I had no instinct for self-preservation.

What I say is that I am grateful for having finally learned the lesson. Grateful for understanding that unattachment fosters forgiveness. And grateful for my lifelong friends, riches beyond all imagining, because I have many, not just the one my dad hoped I would find.

I do wish that I knew how this episode was assimilated by the other person. What filled her messages were anger, fear, defensiveness, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, vengefulness, disappointed expectations. . .  But these are immediate and emotional responses. I wonder what the longer lasting effects will be. But I will never know.

Meditate Anywhere

One of the best practical aspects of Vedic meditation is that you can do it anywhere. You don’t need a candle, incense or yoga mat. You don’t need to sit in a special posture or hold your hands in a particular position. In fact, the teacher’s guidance is very simple: Sit comfortably, close your eyes for a few moments, and begin your mantra. Don’t worry about thoughts; let them come; then gently bring the mantra  back.

Ambient noise isn’t an important factor, either. Yes, you can settle in for Vedic meditation anywhere. I’ve meditated on trains and planes; in churches, Quaker meeting houses, libraries, cafes, art museums; on park benches and sitting on the ground with my back against a tree. I’ve meditated inside quite a few theatres and adjacent areas, including the bar in the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the huge lounge area at the National Theatre. (It’s fascinating to me that, in over forty years of practice, I have never been approached or bothered while I’m meditating in a public place. I don’t know what the mechanism is –psychic? energetic? politeness? what?– but it just doesn’t happen.)

There are, of course, yoga asanas and breathing techniques that can be done before and after meditation to enhance its effectivenes. And a nice, quiet place is the ideal setting. But these are perfect conditions and not always possible.

Regularity of your practice is crucial to realizing its full benefits. There are lots of meditation techniques, and each person’s need is unique, as is his/her steadfastness in regular practice. That daily practice is important, however, and Vedic meditation is very flexible. When you’re running late, you don’t have to skip your meditation. You can do it on the train or during your lunch hour.You can reap delicious life benefits through this simple routine.

For more information about Vedic meditation, these links:http://www.londonmeditationcentre.com/ http://www.newyorkmeditationcenter.com/                                            http://thomknoles.com/

This last one is being updated (as of March, 2016) but is a directory of Vedic meditation teachers around the world: http://www.vedicnetwork.com/

 

 

 

From my Christmas notebook

Christmas Stories
One of the best Christmas stories I’ve ever read is No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read. She wrote two series of novels about English village life, and three novels about life in a small English market town from the turn of the 20th century through the post-WWII period.

I love this book especially for a particular moment during Christmas dinner, when the young boy has a sudden realization about the nature of Father Christmas and in that realization passes from childhood into the world of grown-up secrets.

No Holly for Miss Quinn speaks especially for women who are happily single and enjoy their lives to the full. But it also speaks for the child on the verge of growing up; and for the person who has lonely Christmases; and the person who has too much family at Christmas.

Another Christmas book by Miss Read is The Christmas Mouse, about a young boy who runs away from home on Christmas Eve, and the canny and wise old woman who gets him home for Christmas. Miss Read, whose real name was Dora Saint, wrote beautifully, especially in her descriptions of nature –the changes of seasons, the activities of birds and animals– and the way children interact with the natural world. She also had great insight into the urge to simplify our lives, to leave some of the unnecessary impedimenta behind.
.An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories includes both traditional and modern tales, and the illustrations are evocative and lush. These are stories for grown ups to enjoy and to read with children. Some of the titles will give you an idea: “Burper and the Magic Lamp,” by Robert Leeson. “Ghost Alarm,” by Nicholas Fisk. “The Anarchist’s Pudding,” by Geraldine McCaughrean. Mr. Pickwick’s adventure sliding on the ice is included as well. Several of the stories have sinister or macabre twists, and the Christmas ghost story is a classic form, thanks to Charles Dickens.
 
How about an opening to whet the appetite: “Jeremy James first met Father Christmas one Saturday morning in a big shop. He was a little surprised to see him there, because it was soon going to be Christmas, and Jeremy James thought Santa Claus really ought to be somewhere in the North Pole filling sacks with presents and feeding his reindeer.” — from “Father Christmas and Father Christmas,” by David Henry Wilson.

Stories by Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Annie Dillard, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Smiley and others are included in A Literary Christmas, Great Contemporary Christmas Stories, a collection from the Atlantic Monthly Press. These are stories for avid readers and for those who want to sample the work of some of the most interesting writers of our time. Some entries are excerpts from previous works, and some are topical short stories. A great read for the Christmas season.

For stories in song, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols is very handy. It includes all the verses of fifty Christmas carols as well as the music, and it’s small enough to slip into a handbag on the way to Midnight Mass or Christmas service. The carols are from throughout Europe, some dating as early as the Middle Ages. The book includes a brief history of each carol and an introduction with a short history of Christmas caroling, as well as notes on the carols in performance. Like all Penguin Books, it’s a fantastic bargain.

And don’t forget, there are many editions of A Christmas Carol available, from economy paperbacks to lushly illustrated coffee table versions. The movies are fun, especially the musical, Scrooge, with Albert Finney in the title role; but reading the story with your family or friends is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve.

Speaking of the movies, let me put in a vote for the oldie with Alistair Simm as Scrooge. Yes, it’s in black and white. But Simm is such a wonderful Scrooge, and he looks like such a jovial granddad, this is a perfect version for children. The Ghost of Christmas Future is really scary, too, which the kids really like!
 
©2007 RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Christmas Skies

The word, leaden, to describe the skies, must have been coined by an Englishman. The very definition of the term defines the winter skies in England. It’s a pefect word, too, because it gives not only the colour, a dark, dull grey; it also gives a sense of suppression, a  sense of the  heavy weight on our emotions, here under those skies. When, rarely, the sun breaks through for an hour or so, our elation is dashed by the inevitable return of the leaden skies, often with rain.

This greyness of days is coupled with the long, dark nights that begin to close over us in September, and reach their longest on December 2st. Sunset is earlier and sunrise later each day. Here, it is dark by 3:30 or so, and in a week it will be dark by 3:00.

All of this, for many of us, saps our energy and even deadens enthusiasm for our usual everyday enjoyment of life’s good moments.

No wonder ancient peoples needed to have a festival, a celebration day, in the middle of this season. And no wonder the ancient Christian church picked December 25th, when the days are just starting to get longer again, to be Jesus’s birthday. Who cares when it really was? We need the celebration now; we need to say, yes, the clouds will lift and we will see more light . . . maybe not soon, but eventually.

White Handkerchief

In the Vedic meditation tradition that I practice, a student makes a simple offering at her/his initiation: a few flowers and a piece of fruit presented on a pure white cloth– for which I chose a handkerchief with a lily embroidered in white thread on one corner.

The offerings are placed on a simple table altar for a brief ceremony which thanks the teachers of the last 8,000 or so years who have passed down the mantras, teacher to student. After this chant, each student goes with his/her teacher to receive privately the mantra chosen for him/her. After the initiation, students meditate together with their teachers. At the end, teachers and students eat the fruit together or each student is given fruit to take home; and students take a flower, not one of their own, but that of another student, home. Each student’s white cloth is returned to its owner.pujatable1 I carried my handkerchief for my marriage ritual– both times. And I brought it for my initiation into a more advanced mantra nearly 30 years later. I carried it again when I received another advanced mantra in 2015.

Symbols are important. Sometimes symbols become more important than that which they symbolize. But if a symbol is a reminder, a prompt for contemplation, gratitude, or forgiveness, then it is valuable.

My white handkerchief is a reminder of the deep spiritual understanding that humans can achieve when an open heart and mind are set toward enlightenment and the doing of good. If I were going to be buried (I’m not; I will be cremated) I would want that handkerchief buried with me. As it is, I will give it to a most loved person before I die, someone who, I hope, will seek the Light that it symbolizes for me.

Atheist Friends – On Further Consideration

True confessions time: After over ten years of searching in England for a Meeting for Worship that gathers fully, where we can hear the buzzing sound of the Spirit, and see the Light flowing from person to person around the circle, I realize that I resent the “non-theists” in the circle, who, I perceive, prevent the Meeting from gathering. In absolute truth, I wish they would take themselves off to the atheist church in London.

When I first entered that Quaker silent meeting in Berkeley, I felt surrounded and cushioned by the silence. I immediately felt a sense of arms encompassing my whole body. The meeting had started, so I sat in the nearest empty chair. The silence was profound, one might even say deafening. I sank into it, felt enveloped and humbled; then elated and energized by an audible buzz that seemed to be moving from person to person around the circle. No one spoke, so the silence was deep and full; but late in the meeting, a heartily suckling baby broke the silence, though not the connection around the circle.

The next week, the experience was completely different. There was a restlessness in the room– much squeaking of chairs , many heavy sighs, many shuffling feet. Half a dozen people stood up to speak, one very profoundly about the war that had just started in Iraq (1990). But there were long periods of silence, with a sense of connection similar to what I’d felt in the first meeting.

In the ladies’ room after my second meeting, a voice from the next stall said, “You got any paper in that stall?”

I said yes, and handed a wad of toilet tissue under the bottom edge of the stall.

As we washed our hands, she said, “You’re new here. Where do you come from?”

“I’m an ex-Catholic.”

“Ah,” she said, “You’d be surprised how many of us there are here.”

When I read the three-panel brochure about Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, I noted that the description of the meeting was “Christ-centered,” not Christian. I gathered that Worship and Ministry committee, who produced the brochure, thought that “Christian” had been hijacked by fundamentalists; and they didn’t want to discourage any newcomers.

Getting to know people in the meeting, I was fascinated but not surprised that about a third of the members were refugees from the Catholic Church. Say what you want about the dogma, misogyny, paedophilia and other disgusting elements of Catholicism, when the Catholics get you as a child (and they did, then, demanding that even children in mixed marriages be reared Catholic), they give you a thirst for the mystical, the inexpressible. As Howard Brinton points out in 300 Years of Friends, Quakers and Catholics are the only mainstream religions that hold to the actual experience of the presence of Christ during worship. But I’m getting off the track here.

What I’m getting to is that each Meeting for Worship is a unifying experience, connecting those present in a manner that is unique and inexpressibly profound. It is not merely sitting quietly, cogitating or musing, without focus or intention. It is a communal act, a communal calling on the Holy Spirit(or Christ or God) to be present among us, to make that presence known in a way that we humans can recognize.

Silent worship requires devotion, an old-fashioned word, but the truest to my meaning that I can find. It requires us to be devoted to the community through and in Divine Energy or Presence. It requires at minimum the desire to experience God’s presence.

An atheist does not have this desire. An atheist does not focus on the experience of The Devine. An atheist does not wish to connect through the Holy Spirit or any other Divine Entity– because an atheist does not accept the existence of the Divine, does not seek to know God or to participate in a spiritual community. Atheists are simply Not Interested in spiritual connection.

So, yes, I resent their presence in meeting for worship. And my observation, after so many years seeking the kind intense spiritual connection I knew in my first meeting, is that when atheists are present, it is almost impossible for a meeting to gather. Each individual Friend may feel the movement of the Spirit, but it is not possible to gather completely and wholly as a spiritual community because some people in the room do no participate worshipfully. It doesn’t happen because the people sitting in the room are not all focussed on the calling of the Spirit.