A couple of weeks ago I did the last of my twenty interviews with Scottish writers over the age of seventy. Reading through the entire set in one day, I was struck by how many of these men and women practised some form of meditation. They reported that it sharpens the senses, refreshes and clarifies the mind, makes one more receptive to creative ideas, opens the gates to gratitude, forgiveness and serenity and increases the chances of getting into ‘the flow.’
For a quarter of a century I, too, have been practising meditation. Every day, for about twenty minutes, I sit, with my eyes shut, in a relaxed position (not the lotus position which I find uncomfortable) and try to empty my mind until I pass into a stage of complete blankness and nothingness. Emerging on the other side of this, I am relaxed, stress-free and refreshed, my mind is clearer and more focused; my pulse and blood pressure are lower than normal, taking about one hour to return to their usual levels. I have definitely not been asleep, but in some other state of consciousness. I couldn’t say where it is that I have been. I only know that I have a strong sense of having returned from a place where there is harmony and beauty. Sometimes this vanishing into nothingness comes quicker than others; sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, as unbidden thoughts chase around my mind. But this, too, I find beneficial because it feels as if my subconscious mind has released things that needed to surface.
What I have described is very much on the lower rungs of the transcendental meditation ladder. On the top rungs are those who have dedicated their lives to meditation, such as Buddhist lamas, Hindu holy men and hermits and early Christian monks, and at the other end are the likes of me.
Most of my deeper meditations have been associated with being close to nature. The author, Stephen Graham, describes his own response to nature:
‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of a forest, or spread wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door that does not look like a door, opens.’ (The Gentle Art of Tramping ,1927).
This feeling of a door opening seems to occur more easily after activities in which I have been completely absorbed by the physical and mental challenge and the exercise of skill – that is to say, when I have been in the flow. I have experienced this kind of flow both as a climber and as a kayaker. Csikszentmihalyi, in his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Expression (University of Chicago Press, 1983.), says there is a strong connection between being in the flow and meditation. People who experience flow report that it enhances their ability to achieve meditation; and people who have found a path to deep meditation also find that they experience flow more regularly than otherwise.
Even without experiencing flow, I find that contact with the natural environment around me aids meditation. It works the other way round, too. Soon after I had taken up meditation my ability as a kayaker dramatically improved. No longer did I see the ocean and the elements as something to be battled against with a clenched jaw and white knuckles. Instead, I felt a new sense of oneness with the ocean, I relaxed and, as a result, became a better paddler.
Each person meditates in a different way; and for each person every meditation is different. I shall end this post by describing just one meditation I did about ten years ago when I was in my early seventies.
One day in late March I went for a walk in a part of the oak forest that covers the rolling hills of Umbria. I was following small paths and carrying my camera. Sometimes I was intensely in the present, in the now, noticing every detail, all five senses alert, photographing the beauty around me from every angle and on a range of scales from the wide panorama across the forest, to the detail on the bark of a tree. At other times I allowed my thoughts to drift wherever they cared to go. Some of my best ideas bubble up while I am walking in the hills or paddling my kayak. I think it is something to do with a steady rhythm, and thoughts being stimulated by the slowly changing scene. I alternated between two different kinds of creativity – being in the present, camera and mind in focus, and being mentally elsewhere, the mind producing new ideas and connections. It was like some mental equivalent to stepping out of a sauna into the pool and then back again several times – invigorating and relaxing both at once. So, when, on the way home (I was staying with my son), I came to the edge of the forest, I was, you might say, ‘warmed up’ for my session of meditation.
In sunshine I descended through a terraced olive grove which overlooked the farmland spread out below. I came upon an area richly carpeted with what looked like oxeye daisies, except that they were purple and not white. I sat with my back to a low terrace wall. Below me and about half a mile away, a tractor was chug-chugging in a field; smoke drifted upwards from a bonfire, its faint tang mixing with the bosky forest scents reaching me from the slopes above. From somewhere closer came the steady snip-snip of an olive tree being pruned. Small birds were in full voice, like sound-stars twinkling or bright bubbles in a lazy river. Near my left foot a tiny beetle ascended the trunk of an olive tree, negotiating the crevices in the bark and the patches of brown, white and yellow lichen.
I closed my eyes and softly repeated my ‘mantra’ – a two-syllable, vibrating sound that has no meaning. Breathe out on the first syllable, breathe in on the second syllable. I tried not to think of anything except my breathing, to still the internal chatter of my brain. Out went my breath to become part of this planet’s atmosphere. Perhaps, centuries from now, particles of that breath will still be in circulation. Breathe in. I think: ‘Maybe I’m drawing into my body a tiny particle of breath exhaled by a creature now extinct, or perhaps by the Buddha himself.’ A sense of being part of something vastly older and bigger than myself began to steal over me. A picture of the beetle entered my mind. That olive tree is its whole world, its whole universe. It has no idea its tree is part of an orchard, or that the orchard is just a small area of one hillside in a range of hills.
Gradually my mind pulled back, a zoom lens in reverse. My worries became more and more distant and insignificant until, in the grander scheme of things, they ceased to exist. The sounds of the birds, the tractor, the clippers melded into harmonious, sweet music. A sense of the unity of everything was strongly upon me. Now I was hardly aware of my breathing. In … out. My mind emptied, but it would be incorrect to say I was thinking of nothing, because even to be thinking of nothing and to be focusing on dispelling wayward thoughts and distractions is to be thinking of something. The mind has simply to relinquish control, to let go and allow itself to be emptied until the self vanishes.