Newfoundland Meditations

From on top of a hill where a small white house sits, I can see the beach below. The ocean, like life itself, creeps up the coast and falls back, merging with the deep blue. From an old wooden table covered with oil paint and propped against a window, I watch the lazy summer sun and the tall grass dancing. There are voices from the house next door, but the sound of the wind makes them inaudible. A few people, smudges of red and white, walk across the beach. On the road, cars pass each solemnly and slowly. The waves come and go, like watching my breath as I sit here on this chair and fill this notebook with words. There is nothing to do. It’s strange how difficult this is to accept sometimes. Usually my inclination is to fill these silences, these empty spaces with just about anything–desires to be something or somewhere else, or just chatter. Is this all I am? This usual existence that I call my life, where I am chained to a continual like and dislike of everything is so limiting. It has length, but no width. Is it possible to forsake this view of my life for something that is much larger and far more mysterious—to die to the known and enter the unknown?

Everything is pregnant with summer, the trees, grass, sky, and ocean—the breath, the head, the heart, and the line. Wooden posts stand at attention across the hills and valleys overlooking the white capped waves, the ribbons of blue, and the stones and sand. A dog barks, a lawn mower engine starts up, and then all is quiet again. There is a natural rhythm to life here that is deeply ingrained in the locals. It has soft ebb and a flow that I can only imagine comes from living near the sea. There is a humbling feeling of being a small part of something that is so vast that it doesn’t allow you to become overly concerned with yourself and your preoccupations. This wonderful feeling of wide is a gift that can swallow up any shred of self importance.

John, the middle-aged man who lives next door is sitting calmly and collectedly on the front steps of his house, facing the ocean. Deciding to take a break from raking the grass, he pets his dog Chip. He looks like he belongs there completely, like a silent pharaoh. Looking at him betrays my own restlessness. It’s a marvel how someone or something so unobtrusive, can teach you something about yourself.

I feel something is working on me here. There is a softening of tensions that appears if I am open enough to see it and taste it. It’s like the landscape is a special mirror, and I can see myself reflected in it. What is behind my restlessness, behind my tensions? Ah! There is something else here, whole and mysterious. A vertical dimension, one might say.

We are all moving through forces that we don’t understand like little boats being rocked to and fro on that big blue expanse of ocean that I see through my window that is buzzing of flies. And like those flies, I find myself caught so often inside a prison of a small house, when all I have to do is find the door to a much larger world that is waiting patiently outside. It all comes down to what I truly and sincerely respect. What do I serve? Either my limited energy is continually taken by my likes and dislikes, flowing into my thoughts and emotions, or it can serve the one who is able to see and stand in front of the mystery. This precious energy could serve a different master that my body truly wishes to obey.

(Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, “The Alchemist”)

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony

“Settle down in your room at a moment when you have nothing else to do. Say “I am now with myself,” and just sit with yourself. After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored. This teaches us one very useful thing. It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored! Why is this so? It is so because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life. If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction… We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from the outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, (Darton, Lomgman & Todd Ltd., 1970) p. 68

The Art of Meditation

I have been spending a lot of time with Sir Richard Temple’s beautiful book The Art of Meditation, which I received last week in the mail. I highly recommended it. Sir Richard Temple lives in London, England, and owns The Temple Gallery, one of the world’s great religious icon galleries. Recently, he has introduced his magnificent collection of Buddha statues into the space. He also decided to gather his collection of photographs that were originally commissioned for an exhibition catalog, and publish The Art of Meditation instead, along with When You Hear a Dog Bark, an intimate personal account of Buddhist meditation in Thailand.

In the poignant introduction to the book, Temple writes:

There is in all of us, even if deeply buried, a longing for eternal truth….Art, at least traditional sacred art, with its supreme technical mastery and craftsmanship, with the grandeur of its emotional language, its inner stillness and its suggestion of profound meaning can be a signpost for this search. Sacred art of the great ancient traditions speaks to what is finest in the human spirit and can turn us in the direction of order, compassion and wisdom.

The photographs in the book are stunning, and his personal journal about meditation is a joy to read. It is sincere, and often humorous and insightful.

Here is a remarkable passage from Temple’s journal that resonated with my own search:

Meditating is seeing into oneself, and it is not the role of the seer to intervene; he does not descend to the level where what is seen takes place. The seer is a higher level in oneself, the lower remains as it is. It is simply there to be seen objectively, as one would stand in front of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights. One may be intrigued, horrified, fascinated, amused and so on, but one is an onlooker to these events and not a participant.

A great spiritual truth can be understood from this if the principle of impartial, objective seeing is tightly grasped. The seer is an appearance within oneself of an intelligence that does not belong to the ordinary world but to a higher one.

The practice is called “the art of arts and the science of sciences.” With sufficient endeavor it can be brought into one’s everyday life. I have met people, admittedly very few, who carry out their ordinary affairs in the world while maintaining this interior regards upon themselves.

For more information about the book or to view the collection online, you can visit The Temple Gallery here.

The Temple Gallery, London

When Angels are Born, A Review

Where Angels Are BornWhen Angels Are Born
by Ron Starbuck
Saint Julian Press

I awake most mornings at 5 a.m., shuffle around the house in half sleep, make coffee, and then I sit quietly to watch the arrival of another new day through the window. On most of these mornings, just as the sun reaches up to the sky, I turn on my laptop computer and my attention is immediately taken by the white hot flash of an LCD screen.

This morning was different. After a few moments sitting quietly looking out the window at the light changing outside over the silhouetted black buildings as the coffee machine gurgled away in the kitchen, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down Ron Starbuck’s latest volume of poetry, When Angels Are Born. I don’t know why I did that instead of turning on my computer, but I am grateful. It is as though a part of me needed a different kind of nourishment. Something softer and more contemplative, a kind of wish to make a connection to something that speaks to a deeper part of myself–a “secret self that we all have,” as the writer Katherine Mansfield once said.

It surprises me now to realize how little an effort is required to make one’s morning seem holy and significant. We just need to be attentive and to listen much like Ron Starbuck says in the introduction: “to open ourselves to the mystery of life.” Reading his poetry is to accept a gentle invitation from a friend to go walking in the fields of the spirit. You enter his words like a song, deeper and deeper still into “the mystery of life” and all of its “infinite possibilities,” much like the lightning bugs he describes in the poem “Youth & Rebellion:”

who guide us home
and guide us still.

When Angels Are Born is an honest and heartfelt invocation, a calling out to the sacred that is so desperately needed today “in a world that undervalues such an intimacy of spirit.” It is also a spiritual journey where we are continually aroused from our sleep and brought to think and to feel our common human situation. We are encouraged gently to “pay attention” and to “welcome the embrace | of heaven found in a single moment, between breathing in and out.” Ron Starbuck’s psalms, or sacred songs and prose easily guides us onto the path of many contemplative traditions and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton. And in the light of those traditions, we are asked to travel further than the known, to “empty out our small separate selves and to recognize the truth of who we really are–”to become a sacrament of seeing.”

There are no clear cut answers offered to the great metaphysical questions but rather a deepening of those questions. He speaks directly into the heart of each of us, as though drawing from an ancient source, giving us voice to our deepest and most powerful intuitions and longings. The question of what does it really mean to be alive is echoed throughout the book and his penetrating verse assures us that the world is filled with the Absolute and that we need only to listen and discover for ourselves that we are not separate–that we are all part of something much larger. Even difficult spiritual concepts like compassion, emptiness, and rebirth are distilled down to their essence and made accessible in a language easily understood by the heart. In the poem “Death,” for example, Ron Starbuck says:

Look at someone you love today
For one minute,
As if you saw them
for the first time.

When Angels Are Born is a gift. It is a wonderful book that can be read again and again. It serves to remind us to ask what is being given to us in each moment. Ron Starbuck’s poetry encourages us to try to see the world through fresh eyes, and to open ourselves up to gratitude for this life, or as he so eloquently puts it: “to give birth to our own angels in the world every day.”

Spiritual Diplomacy

Here is an illuminating interview with James George, former high commissioner to India and former ambassador to Iran. The Dalai Lama calls him “my old friend.” Chogyam Trungpa referred to him as “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.”

He has been a gentle teacher and a friend who has inspired many to engage in a spiritual practice in the midst of life–one that can bridge the external world with the inner world.