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.

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/

 

 

 

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.

Inspired and Inspiring: Thom Knoles

If you ever get a chance to hear Thom Knoles speak, TAKE IT!  I’ve written here before about the quality of the teacher-student relationship in India and the kind of teaching we expect here in the West.

Thom Knoles straddles the boundary between the Indian teacher-to-student relationship and the European classroom lecture method. He is revered in India as a great teacher with comprehensive knowledge of the Vedas; and he is looked to by his students in the West for his direct and gentle style of teaching profound and life-affirming concepts from the Vedas.

Vedic meditation is a simple practice in and of itself. Each student receives a mantra chosen specifically and individually for that student, and the practice is simply to use the mantra twice a day for a brief period, usThomually about twenty minutes. Hundreds of studies show the various positive effects of this daily practice, from such mundane benefits as lowering blood pressure and improving the grades of high school students who practice regularly; to enhanced cognitive functions and spiritual awakening. The practical improvements are the principal reason that most people decide to try it out. The more profound and intangible effects are why most people continue to meditate every day.

Thom teaches the Vedic meditation practice. But his teaching goes far beyond the simple initiation ceremony. He brings concepts and beliefs that are millennia old to his Western students in a way that no other teacher I’ve known or read has done. Thom’s teaching is unique and delightful because of his gift for finding stories and examples to illustrate these complex concepts in terms and situations that are completely and instantly recognizable to his students. He does not reduce profound truths to pithy quotations or a series of steps. Rather, he raises his students’ understanding of a concept with empathetic selection of slices of modern life.

Recently I went to Thom’s talk, “The Conscious Design of Happiness,” in London. The content of the talk was practical and spiritual, delightful and illuminative, all at the same time; but what most inspired me was Thom’s gentleness, directness and simplicity. He needed no fancy “visuals,” no staging, no notes. He sat quietly, comfortably and informally in a chair and spoke for over an hour. I’m sure he had an outline in his mind of what he wanted to cover, but he allowed his intuition to guide his talk and the specific examples he chose. As a teacher myself, I was delighted and encouraged to be assured by example that simply having the knowledge in one’s mind and trusting in the moment to give cues about content can actually work.

Speaking briefly with him afterward, I saw in a personal moment the same simplicity, directness and self-knowledge that comes across publicly. He is, as my California friends say, The Real Deal.

Link: Thom Knoles

The Qualities of Silence

Recently, at Woodbrooke, I had a startling revelation. Quaker silent worship is anything but silent.

I don’t mean only the shuffling feet, rustling papers, coughs and sneezes, or the occasional snoring. I mean that the room is not deeply peaceful or intensely quiet. Rather the space is filled with emotions: uncertainty, expectation, impatience, fatigue, distraction. The concept of waiting or expectancy means that at no time in Meeting for Worship is everyone completely silent within.

This realization struck me during the Woodbrooke course, “Quakers and Modern Spirituality.” During the course, we had periods of Quaker worship and of meditation. It was during a very deep group meditation that I suddenly recognized how full, enclosing and uplifting that silence of meditation is when compared to that of Quaker worship. Meditation is at the same time both the essence of self-awareness and the practice of connecting Self with the Divine Energy.

Quaker worship is assertive, grasping, reaching out. Meditative silence is accepting, open, inviting in.

India: Pictures from Shiva Country

Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where we stayed in March, is in northwest India, where Shiva is the revered local divinity. As Krishna is in Vrindivan, so Shiva is through this region. Here are some pictures of shrines to and images of Shiva.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges.  It is on this platform that major worship  and celebration events are held.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges. It is on this platform that major worship and celebration events are held.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often  dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

The Power of Modern Spirituality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book was my Christmas gift to many of my friends. Those who have started reading it, have, without exception, commented on the directness, elegance and simplicity of William Bloom’s writing style (and two of these people are published writers themselves). I enjoy his style largely because he is one of the few people I know who actually writes conversationally: he writes like he talks.

William has been one of the leaders of the holistic spirituality movement in the United Kingdom. He has been associated with Findhorn and was one of the founders of the Alternatives program of speakers and workshops at St. James’s, Piccadilly, in London. He has spent the last twenty or so years teaching concepts of holistic spirituality, spiritual companionship and approaches to education and psychology that include, not ignore, the spiritual element in human life.

This book captures the key concepts of holistic spirituality and “how it works” in language that anyone can understand, whether scholar or seeker.  It’s fun to read because of William’s style, but incomparably deep and universal in its wisdom. It’s a great book to read at the beginning of a new year.

William Bloom:  http://williambloom.com/

Foundation for Holistic Spirituality:  http://www.f4hs.org/