Rembrandt’s painting, Storm on the Sea of Galilee (still missing from the Gardner Museum in Boston after the 1990 robbery), is an intriguing image of meditation. The mast of the boat divides the picture into two triangles. The darker triangle on the right depicts Jesus being awakened by his frightened disciples. He has been resting (a sign of trust in God) while the storm has been raging. Light shines from him. The triangle to the left shows the light of the sun as the clouds begin to dissipate and the storm is beginning to be calmed when Jesus says, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). The moment is on the cusp between the storm and the stillness that follows. Rembrandt includes his self-portrait amongst the frightened souls (the one looking toward us from the boat). The demeanor of Jesus in the stern of the boat gives us a clue to the stillness that governs his life. He is the still point of the picture.
John Main said many times that one should not expect anything special to happen during meditation. We are not to look for signs or special experiences, which is a difficult teaching for a generation that thirsts for spiritual experiences. It is what happens in the rest of our life that matters. However, we do learn something very important in meditation: stillness, physical, mental and spiritual. We sit still for 20 – 30 minutes, twice a day. Our rhythmical and quiet breathing calms our frantic body and mind. The mantra we repeat silently guides us away from thinking and doing. I find it helpful to say the first two syllables of the mantra, Maranatha, on the in breath and the last two on the out breath. That way I am in tune with the breath of God which gives me life. The stillness gradually takes over as if Jesus is commanding the waves and winds of our daily anxieties to be still. Meditation has a calming, ripple effect on the rest of our day. But it is not easy (and I do not find it easy) and it takes a lot of practice.
I recently returned from my annual visit to England to see family and friends (and brush up on my accent!). If I was to rate it on TripAdvisor I would give the visit 5 stars. I have thought about what has made the difference and concluded it is the effect of meditation. The stillness accompanied me on my journey of many miles and helped it become a pilgrimage. I did not rent a car and was able to opt out of the storm of traffic on the M-25, and instead enjoy being transported in the calm and quiet of British Rail trains. I avoided the underground in London and took buses for the most part, a much more relaxing mode. I walked many miles and enjoyed the flowers, shrubs and trees in bloom much earlier than in New England. Spring was in full swing in England, so refreshing after a bitter winter in New England.
The trip was for two weeks instead of the usual nine days and gave more time needed for visiting people without any rush. The stillness enabled me to be more in the present moment and pay attention to the people I was with. I have visited in nursing homes for 30 years in my work as a parish minister but never had the luxury of time as on this visit, spending several hours each day with my mother. Just to sit with her and listen to her and notice things going on with people around her, exchanging a smile with members of staff, or talking with a remarkably alert 92 year old resident over lunch, or learning that another resident had spent 10 years in California. Visiting with and listening to my aunt I discovered that she had visited places in Arizona and California that I enjoy. When I am relaxed food and drink and hospitality begin to shine, and I enjoyed visits with my sisters and their families, and several of my cousins I encountered treasures in all my conversations with family and friends. Other times I was able to tune into a person’s grief or celebrate something with them. There is so much to discover by just sitting still and listening!
In fact I was able to adopt a contemplative approach to much of the time. The days were planned so that there was time to spare and no rush. Meditation has taught me to slow down (it’s not just due to age!). I am convinced that this experience-hungry generation needs less experience and more stillness, less consumption and more celebration of the present moment, less technology and more direct communion with Mother Earth.
There were other moments of stillness on my trip. I discovered the Quaker Centre on the Euston Road near my lodging at the London School of Economics. It is the resource center for the Quaker movement in Britain and it is an oasis of quiet. I often settled in their café with a cup of tea to read (thankfully there was no television in my room at the LSE). When I visited some friends in York, we shared 30 minutes of meditation together in their meditation room in their home near York Minster. Another friend and I gazed in wonder at the Seagram murals by Rothko at the Tate Modern, and we enjoyed choral works by Tavener and Part at Southwark Cathedral. The twelve garden squares of Bloomsbury offered respite from London’s traffic and I learned that foxes inhabit a few of the gardens. Stopping by the roadside to say hello to the newborn lambs in the County of Dorset with my sister and brother-in-law was a delight. A high point was watching and listening to my grandnieces play from their imaginations as their parents and I walked around Kew Gardens on a gorgeous Spring day. Doing the Treetop walk at Kew Gardens offered a different perspective on the world.
A previous blog, A Vacation Quandary, posed several questions about vacations. This vacation showed how to turn a potentially hectic trip into a pilgrimage towards stillness and contemplation.