Two short pieces from Seamus Heaney, probably the greatest writer of modern Poetry in Ireland or indeed anywhere in the English language, who died yesterday. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam. Both are about space.
Because there is “constant movement” in our lives, as Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once said, “with lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place“, we need meditation which in its essence is “simplifying space“, One way of doing that is to simplify the chatter in our minds, creating the space to simply be with each moment, without always running a commentary. We practice to get closer to pure awareness and less caught up in our judgment, criticisms and interpretations. We too try to stay very close to the music:
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
The second is just one of my favourite poems, written after the death of his mother. Her passing leaves a gap in his life, reminding him of the space in the front hedge when they chopped down a tree. When we simplify the situation through meditation, we create an inner space for ourselves, removing ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the constant running. As the poem suggests, this inner space is not completely empty, but is also a source – a “bright nowhere” –
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
The Haw Lantern
photo noel feans
There is no greater mystery than this,
that we keep seeking reality
though in fact we are reality
Modern science is finding out that a lot can be learned from contemplative traditions, both in the East, as seen in Ajahn Sucitto’s quote this morning, and in the West, as can be seen in monastic orders like the Cistercians both here at Bolton Abbey in Ireland or all around the world. They both emphasize the health benefits of sitting still, which has effects on brain function, even in small doses.
The claim…that stillness of body leads to stillness of mind is not the exclusive preserve of Indian traditions: the desert fathers maintained that simply sitting still, preferably on or close to the ground, would greatly aid their attempts to keep the mind focused and thus resist the distracting chatter of demons. To sit still is to be present, and fully attentive to what is. How often do we really give our undivided attention to the things we do, or the people we are with? To be present is to accept what is, as it is, without wishing things were otherwise, or imagining that if only they were, then everything would be so much better. It is to be able to pick up a pebble and see that it is perfect – just as it is – neither too big or too small.
Nicholas Buxton, Tantalus and the Pelican
photo b navaz : basalt pebble scratched by glacier erosion
The simple practice of sitting still or steady walking bring you to a firmer place in yourself, your still centre. This is because “mind” is a mixture of heart and brain functions, in which the heart is predominantly involved with the steady receptivity we call mindfulness and clear comprehension. The heart is not just a metaphor for emotions and perceptions. So when we “tune in” to a still body or to the rhythm of breathing, the message we receive is that things are fine and the brain quietens down. This is the often overlooked function of the heart: it is a major contributor to direct experience (rather than figured out, learned or abstract knowledge).
Ajahn Sucitto, Meditation, A Way of Awakening
Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person…to know and consider…that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in this world. Every person’s foremost task is the actualization of his unique, unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, be it even the greatest, has already achieved.
There is an old story of a famous rabbi living in Europe who was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi’s dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city, and was directed to the rabbi’s room, which was in the attic. He entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more. After greetings, he asked, “Rabbi, where are your things?” The rabbi asked in return, “Well, where are yours?” His visitor replied, “But, Rabbi, I’m only passing through,” and the master answered, “So am I, So am I.”
This is not a lesson to be put off. One great teacher explained it this way: “The trouble with you is that you think you have time.” We don’t know how much time we have. What would it be like to live with the knowledge that this may be our last year, our last week, our last day? In light of this question, we can choose a path with heart.
Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart
photo dirk ingo franke