The next day I wasn’t quite so positive. The thought of not seeing Ellie again for a whole month put me in a melancholy frame of mind.
I got into work a little later than usual, and tried to go on with things calmly and quietly. It might have appeared that I was ‘back to my old self’, but my actions later in the day would undermine any such belief.
I noticed that Tony had returned to the office, although he didn’t look too good. There were dark rings around his eyes, and he had a distracted, out-of-sorts air about him, as if he wasn’t sure if he was awake or not.
I could certainly empathise with that, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel any anger toward him, but rather a degree of sympathy.
I approached his desk and asked, gently, “Hey, Tony – are you okay?”
He look up. “Hmm?” he murmured.
“Are you okay?” I repeated.
He shrugged his shoulders and said; “I’ll be fine.” His tone did not support his assertion.
Compassion moved me to say something that might comfort him. “I saw Ellen the other night,” I started, and he gave me a shocked look, so I quickly qualified my statement; “In a dream. I saw her in a dream, and she told me that she was alright – more than alright. But very sorry. She’s very sorry for … what she did. She just wants people to know that; that she’s okay, and she doesn’t want anyone to be upset or sad.”
Tony glanced away, stared into a silent, inner distance, then pulled open a drawer in his desk. “Here – would you like this?” he produced a colour photograph and handed it to me. “I just can’t look at it any more.” The picture was of Ellie, sat at a table in a restaurant, drink in hand, wearing a red, sleeveless top and a bright happy smile. The sight of her, relaxed and cheerful, gave me a rush of joy and delight, and the sense of her presence grew stronger.
“Thank you,” I said, automatically, not knowing what words would properly convey my gratitude at this precious gift. I carried the photo back to my desk, handling it as if it were the most holy icon in the whole world.
A brainwave suddenly struck me. The office was equipped with multifunction machines that could scan, print and copy, and I used one of these to make a digital version of the photo. I was then able, after quarter of an hour manipulating the image on my computer, to print out a number of copies of the picture in various sizes. I laminated these, then used a pair of scissors to cut them out. One of the smaller ones went into my wallet; the rest I stuck up about my desk. Half-a-dozen images of Ellie were simultaneously smiling at my; I was over-joyed. “I love you,” I whispered to her.
I realised that it was lunchtime, and decided to go out and search through the second-hand shops for a suitable frame to put the original photograph in. I checked in one and didn’t see anything that was quite what I was after, and was on my way to another when I passed the library. I remembered then a snatch of my conversation with Ellie the previous evening: ‘you must find and walk the path yourself’, she had told me.
I turned around and went into the library, where I spent almost an hour perusing the shelves. I left with a small selection of books that had caught my eye; The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer; Fifty Eastern Thinkers, by Diané Collinson, Kathryn Plant and Robert Wilkinson; Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now; and Ben Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior. These four volumes, I hoped, would give me some direction and allow me to find the path that was right for me.
I returned to the office, leaving the purchase of a photo-frame for another time.
I had just got myself a coffee and was ready to get back to work, when Joan came stalking towards me, a look of thunder on her face. “What on earth d’yer think yer doin’?” she demanded, pointing at the pictures of Ellie I’d put up. “Poor Emma; she walked by ‘ere earlier and burst inta tears! She were so upset she ‘ad to go ‘ome.”
My mood plunged, and the room started to swim. I feared that I might faint. “I’m so sorry, Joan,” I said, sitting down heavily. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
“What were yer thinkin’?”
“I don’t think I was thinking, Joan. I’ll take them down.” But I couldn’t even reach across my desk to do this. All the colour, I was sure, had drained from my face. I probably looked in a worse state than Tony did.
“Are yer sure yer okay?”
“No, I’m not sure that I am.”
“Yer been acting queer t’ whole week; mabbe yer should take a few days off, sick, like.”
“You know what, Joan? I think you’re right; a couple of days rest will do me some good.”
“Well, it’ll be weeken’ b’then, so yer’ll ‘ave a bit more time to get yoursen straight.”
“Yes; that’s the thing to do – I’ll take it easy and clear my head, get a fresh start on Monday.” I started to feel better as soon as I’d made the decision. I took down all the pictures; one went into the drawer in my desk, the rest went in a plastic bag with the library books. I tidied up, turned off my computer, emptied the coffee down the sink and washed my cup, and then left the office.
On my way home I popped in to a supermarket to get some milk, and took advantage of a special offer – two bottles of Merlot for the price of one. ’That’s serendipity’, I thought.
Somewhat weighed down with books, milk and wine, I reached my house and managed to open the front door without dropping anything. I had been planning on making a cup of tea and starting one of the books, but instead I opened one of the bottles of wine and sat down with the pictures of Ellie spread out before me.
I gazed at her many images, each smiling happily up at me, and said; “I don’t know what’s going on, Ellie. Are you really with me, or am I having some kind of breakdown?” I sighed, swigged my wine, then leaned back and shut my eyes.
I could sense her presence; was aware of her love for me. But did this prove anything? Even when she had appeared to me in my room, after I had awoken from our first talk – even that did not provide completely compelling evidence that she was real. I could have been hallucinating, or still dreaming. Would I be convinced if someone told me that they were being kept company by the spirit of a deceased loved one, whom only they could perceive, and who spoke to them in their dreams? No, I wouldn’t. I’d think that they had lost the plot.
“But does life even have a plot?” I asked myself out loud. “Isn’t it just a series of more or less random events? Or is there more to it? Is there some meaning behind it all?” Before any of this had happened I had been miserable, only able to plod through each day because I knew that there would eventually be a final one, the day of my death, and it would all be over. Was that a rational way to live? Given the choice between reasoned despair and insane delight, wouldn’t you be crazy to choose despair? Aren’t happiness, hope and love sufficiently valuable to be worth a little madness? Or is it more noble to endure pointless suffering, to face a loveless life, staunchly holding to the narrow, jagged truth, no matter how painful and wretched that might be?
I didn’t know, so I drank more wine and pondered.
I finished the first bottle, but hadn’t found any answers, so opened the second and continued my musing.
My thoughts went round and round, and the wine went down and down. I was frustrated, confused, lost, and drunk. I bent forward so that my head was nearly resting on the table before me; I wanted nothing so much as to cry, to poor out my pain in a flood of tears, but none would come, as they hadn’t for the past twenty-five years. I didn’t know what to do; couldn’t find any answers to my questions.
It was at this moment that I became aware of a slight pressure across my shoulders, as if someone were sitting close beside me, with a comforting arm around me. I gasped and opened my misty eyes. There was nobody there, of course; nobody I could see. No body, but someone.
“Thank you, Ellie,” I said, as my negative, stormy emotions became calm and positive. “Thank you so much.”
I realised then that I’d had too much to drink and was about to vomit. I staggered hurriedly to the toilet, careening off the walls and barging into furniture. I made it just in time; a purple deluge cascaded from my mouth into the bowl. I was grateful then that I hadn’t eaten any dinner, although if I had done, maybe I wouldn’t have thrown-up. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter; what had happened had happened. I clambered unsteadily up to my bedroom, clumsily extracted myself from my clothes, and collapsed on top of my bed.
I lay there for a while, with the room spinning around me, and hoped desperately that I wouldn’t vomit again.
“Goodnight, Ellie!” I croaked into the darkness. “I love you.”
Shortly afterwards, I was sleeping soundly.
I awoke on Thursday with a raging hangover. “Oh, Ellie,” I moaned. “Why did I drink all that wine?”
I experienced then something I didn’t often feel; a sense of gratitude towards Joan, for suggesting I take the rest of the week off sick, so I could just lay in bed – which I did until nearly noon, when the distress of my bladder and bowels persuaded me it was time to drag myself out, pull on some clothes and stumble downstairs.
After visiting the toilet, I disposed of the wine bottles from the previous night, then made some coffee and sat in the living room, wondering what I was going to do with the day. Multiple Ellie’s smiled up at me from the table; I smiled back at them and felt a little better – or, rather, felt slightly less awful.
I decided to have a look at the books I’d got from the library, and which were still sat in the plastic bag I’d brought them home in. I fetched them out and spread them on the table. Casually picking up The Power of Now, I turned past the title page and was confronted with the following:
You are here to enable the divine
purpose of the universe to unfold.
That is how important you are!
– Eckhart Tolle
That caught me by surprise; I was intrigued, but not yet in the right frame of mind to be grappling with such a heavy message. My hangover demanded something lighter, so I put The Power of Now aside and selected The Book of Chuang Tzu. I had picked this volume up because it was, according to the back-cover, a classic text of Taoism (more commonly known as Daoism these days), and I had read and greatly admired the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Ching) in my late teenage years. Flicking past the long introduction, I was caught by three lines of text that seemed to jump out at me:
The perfect man has no self;
The spiritual man has no merit;
The holy man has no fame.
I laid the book down and pondered this while I drained the last of the coffee from my cup, then took it into the kitchen and turned the kettle on. In my delicate state, tea seemed less likely to disturb my stomach than more coffee, so I put my used cup in the sink and got a fresh one from the cupboard.
A few minutes later I returned to the living room, resumed my seat, had a mouthful of tea, and opted to save The Book of Chuang Tzu for another time, and try instead (third time lucky, as they say) Way of the Peaceful Warrior (subtitled: A Book That Changes Lives). It had been recommended to me by a friend at university, and had immediately recognised it when I came across it at the library. I skipped past the preface; before the story began there was a quote:
Warriors, warriors we call ourselves.
We fight for splendid virtue, for
high endeavor, for sublime wisdom,
therefore we call ourselves warriors.
– Aunguttara Nikaya
Okay…, I said to myself, and turned the page:
“Life begins,” I thought, as I waved goodbye to mom and dad….
I quickly became engrossed in the story, and only realised how long I’d been reading when I paused to take a sip of my tea and found it completely cold.
I checked the time; it was nearly two o’clock. I was still feeling rotten, and wondered if having something to eat would help my condition, or make matters worse. I delayed deciding by taking a shower.
After I’d dried and got into fresh clothes, I returned to the thought of food. I reasoned that I should eat something; something simple and easy to digest.
I opted for a couple of slices of toast, thinly buttered, and another cup of tea. My condition improved, and a breath of fresh air seemed like a good idea.
I didn’t go far – only to the shop round the corner to pick up some more bread, having almost reached the end of the last loaf.
Back indoors, I found myself at a loss. I tried to carry on with Way of the Peaceful Warrior but couldn’t concentrate. I turned on the telly and jumped from channel to channel to find something worth watching.
After a couple of hours had rolled by and evening had come, I was feeling close to normal, so I headed out again, returning home with salad and chips wrapped in a naan bread, and three bottles of beer.
I ate, drank, smoked, and watched more telly, until it was time to go to bed.
Switching off the set, I grabbed my empty glass to take through to the kitchen, and looked at the pictures of Ellie lying on the table top. I took one of the largest copies with me, and left it on the stairs whilst I brushed my teeth; I collected it again on my way up to my bedroom, and placed it on her chair.
I gazed into her face for a few moments, sighed, turned out the lights, got undressed and climbed into bed.
“Good night, Ellie – I love you,” I said, repeating yesterday’s words, before shutting my eyes and drifting off to sleep.
Friday morning found me feeling fine. I thought about going into work, but decided that another day off would do me good. I seemed to be okay, but was wary of suffering another mood swing. And, if I went in, I faced the possibility of Joan having a go at me, which I could well do without.
I was also eager to carry on with Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The story seemed so familiar that I wondered if I had read it previously. I was already aware that there were a number of parallels between my experiences and those which Dan, the story’s protagonist, had had with his larger-than-life mentor, whom he had nicknamed Socrates.
By noon I was most of the way through the book. I thought about pushing on and finishing it, but decided instead to go into town to buy the frame for Ellie’s photograph that I’d failed to get on Wednesday, and had been too hung-over on Thursday to attempt.
Outside it was bitter; the brief warm-spell that had arrived a couple of days previously had abruptly left again, as if it were a poor actor who, entering onto the stage before his cue, steps back behind the curtain, hoping no-one had noticed his mistimed entrance.
I’m not usually one for either the heat or the cold, but on this day I found myself rather enjoying the bracing conditions, and even the keenest gust of icy-wind elicited only a slight shiver.
Rather than follow the same route I took when going to work, I chose to walk a more scenic way, keeping to tree-lined avenues and avoiding the main roads. Consequently, I arrived in a part of town I didn’t know too well.
I went down an alley I thought would bring me to a familiar area, but instead it delivered me to an odd little square. Old industrial buildings, mostly converted into student accommodation, enclosed a large part of the space, and a new, unused structure that appeared to be purpose built (although it was unclear what that purpose might be), hemmed in the rest.
A former-factory, now put to some new function, grabbed my attention. It was made of red brick and had frosted glass windows on the ground floor, and some kind of pattern on the windows above. Its door was painted blue, and had a notice of some kind stuck on it; intrigued, I strolled over to have a look.
Two women, chatting merrily, entered the square and headed toward the same building I was approaching. Both appeared to be in their mid- to late-twenties, but they otherwise contrasted; one was tall, blonde, her movements elegant, her overall demeanour one of calm and poise, the other was slight, had dark skin, curly black hair, and seemed full of exuberant energy.
The pair came closer; they both smiled at me, and, as all three of us arrived at the doorway together, the second woman asked in a friendly tone, and with a delightful soft Indian accent, “Oh, are you here for the drop-in meditation?”
Some meditation might help, Ellie had told me. I grinned and answered, “Why, yes, I believe I am.”
“Oh, good! I’m Gita, and this is Carol.”
“Hello,” Carol said, her voice amiable and educated.
“Nice to meet you both. I’m Tim.”
Gita gestured towards the door. “Oh, don’t just stand there – it should be open, so go in! It’s too cold to be standing about outside!”
“Please – ladies first,” I said, and gestured for them to precede me. I didn’t get the chance to read what was written on the sign.
On the other side of the door was a narrow entrance area. Gita and Carol removed their coats and hung them on hooks, and took off their shoes. I did the same.
We moved on into a large, open room, where a dozen or so chairs, most of which were unoccupied, had been arranged in a circle. There was also an area for making tea and coffee, beyond which were several shelves stacked with books. Painted directly onto one wall was a large, stylised image of a man sat meditating in the lotus posture; his eyes were closed, his expression serene. I also noticed a couple of pictures which featured a prominent figure in the middle – one red, sitting, the other black, standing – with various smaller figures arranged around the periphery.
Gita turned to me and asked, “Is this is your first time at the centre?” I nodded. “I’ll introduce you, then.” She guided me over to a casually dressed, middle-age man. “Hi Rajagaha,” she said. “This is Tim; we found him on the doorstep. Tim – this is Rajagaha.”
“Hello,” he said, extending his hand. “Good to meet you.”
“Likewise,” I shook his hand, wondering at the meaning of his odd name.
“Have you meditated before?” he asked.
“Yes, I used to meditate almost every day – but that was years ago. I’d like to get back into it.”
He smiled. “Well, we can certainly help with that. What kinds of meditation have you tried?”
“A few, although the one I recall doing the most was a simple, breath-focused meditation.”
“Ah, good, good. We teach two forms here, and the one we’re going to do today is called ‘the mindfulness of breathing’.”
By this time, more people had arrived and the seats were nearly all taken. Rajagaha checked his watch. “We’ll start in a few minutes,” he told me. “Stay after for a drink and a chat if you like.”
“Thanks – I might do that.”
He gave me a wink and went over to talk to one of the newly arrived people.
Like a moth drawn by a flame I headed over to the shelves to look at the books. They all related to Buddhism: Theravada; Mahayana; Tibetan; Zen. I breathed a sigh of relief; I had been worrying that I’d accidentally stumbled upon some kind of cult that might try to brainwash me, but I figured it was very unlikely that Buddhists would attempt anything like that. It would be bad for their karma, for one thing.
Not that I knew a huge amount about Buddhism. When, at the age of twelve, I had rejected Christianity because it seemed to offer no real answers to the problems that worried me, I had searched elsewhere for truth, and, having heard about Buddhism, looked it up in an old encyclopaedia. The entry was quite short; just a page or two, but seemed to explain the fundamentals. What I had taken away from that brief description was that the Buddha had preached that life is full of suffering, and the only way to escape it was to attain enlightenment, which was achieved through living ethically and by meditation, study, and spiritual practice. These activities would free the individual from their karma (created by their own negative actions in this and previous lives), and from their very self, and so liberate them from the wheel of life and death.
My thoughts on Buddhism after reading this was that it was all very nice, but as I didn’t believe in rebirth, the whole thing made little sense. According to my world-view, I didn’t need to be enlightened to extinguish my existence, I just needed a sharp knife, a rope, or a bottle of pills. I was more interested in ending the suffering of others, rather than my own, and so the goal of enlightenment – to seek one’s own release from the pain of the world – seemed selfish. Although I had respect for the ethical side of Buddhism, I had little time for its cosmology, for the picture it painted of reality, which seemed negative and world-rejecting. I wanted to make the world a better place; Buddhism hadn’t looked like it could help me with that task.
Due to this early brush with Buddhism, and my rejection of it, I had more or less ignored it from then on (aside from a brief fascination with Zen Buddhism during my twenties). But perhaps I’d been too quick in my judgement. Although I had no wish to join any organised religion, and couldn’t see myself blindly accepting the tenants of any particular faith, Buddhism might have some valuable lessons about living a spiritual life. If I was to find a path, as Ellie told me I must, I would have to be open to ideas and practices that would get me going in the right direction. I needed whatever help I could find.
“Okay, everyone,” Rajagaha suddenly said loudly, drawing the room’s attention. “I’m Rajagaha, and I’ll be leading this afternoon’s meditation. Before we get started, I’ll just mention the dhana bowl,” he indicated a large black bowl stood on a small table close to the entrance area. “We don’t make a charge for any of the activities we run here, but we do rely on donations to keep the centre going. If you can’t afford to give, then don’t, but if you have a few quid spare, we’d be grateful for it, and if you’re flush, you can give a bit more. Right; moving on, do we have any beginners today – anyone who’s not sure what meditation’s about, how to sit, that kind of thing?”
There was no response.
“Good, we’ll stay as a single group then; I’ll give a quick intro and guide us along. Everyone to the Shrine Room.”
The seats were vacated and we headed through a door and up some stairs, then through another door, into the Shrine Room. It was a large room, with a stepped dais at the far end on which was sat a nearly full-sized statue of the Buddha, flanked by flowers and candles. Along the side walls were chairs, and beside the door were stacked mats, blankets and cushions. People helped themselves to these and settled themselves down about the room. I took a mat and a blanket, found a space, and adopted the meditation posture I’d used in the past – the cross-legged half-lotus.
Rajagaha lit the candles each side of the Buddha, and then wrapped a blanket around his middle before sitting on a chair. There was a small table beside him with a clock, a metal bowl and a small, hammer-like implement.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s take a minute to arrive and get in touch with our body. We’ll be doing ‘the mindfulness of breathing’.”
I closed my eyes and internally checked my posture to make sure that I had a straight back and my limbs were comfortably arranged. I relaxed and waited for the next instructions from Rajagaha, which duly came.
“I’ll ring the first bell in a moment. During the first stage we simply breathe in, breathe out, then count ‘one’. Breathe in, breathe out, count ‘two’, and so on up to ten, then we start again. When you find your mind start to wander, simply bring your attention back to the breath.” He then struck the hammer-like implement against the bowl, creating a clear, ringing sound.
I attended to my breathing. In, out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.
I experienced an inner glow; after my last conversation with Ellie I had expected it to be a challenge to get going again with meditation, but here I was, only a couple of days later, sat in meditation with a bunch of Buddhists. I hadn’t even put any effort into finding the centre, I’d just stumbled upon it, as if by accident. But was it an accident? I asked myself.
It was as this point that I realised that I’d lost my count. Concentrate! I told myself, pushed my thoughts aside, and started again. Breathe in, breathe out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.
By now, I was ready for my mind to start wandering, so I held my concentration, focused on my breath.
In, out – four. In, out – five. In, out – six.
This was better. I followed the air entering my nose, flowing into my lungs and causing them to expand. Innnnnn. My lungs were full; I held the air there for a moment, then slowly expelled it, the used air escaping back out my nose in a smooth stream, lungs deflating. Ouuuttt.
A slight pause, then the cycle started again; air drawn in, held, and released.
My awareness expanded through my body; I noticed that I was sitting rather stiffly. While maintaining my concentration on my breath, I gently relaxed my posture again.
Breathe in, breathe out – nine. In, out – ten. In, out – eleven.
The tension in my muscles started to dissipate. I was enjoying this; it seemed almost too simple. In, out – twelve.
Damn, I thought to myself as I remembered we were only supposed to count to ten, then go back to one.
I re-focused, but as I did so I became aware of a loud argument going on between some people passing by outside the building, distracting me, and then I noticed all sorts of other sounds: the breathing of myself and the other meditators; a rustling as somebody shifted around on their cushion; muted traffic noises; faint snatches of birdsong.
How was I unaware of all this noise? I wondered to myself, before realising that I’d stopped counting altogether. Shocked at how easily I’d lost track of what I was supposed to be doing, I tried to bring complete attention to my breath. Keep on it! I ordered myself.
In, out – one. In, out – two. In, out – three.
This time, I got all the way to ten and started back at one. All was going well, and I continued on, but as I reached eight, the bowl was rung again.
“Stage two of the ‘mindfulness of breathing’,” said Rajagaha. “Now we count before the breath. So, count ‘one’, then breathe in and breathe out. Count ‘two’, breathe in, breathe out, and so on up to ten, then repeat the process.”
I tried to follow these new instructions, (one) but had difficulty working out what the difference (two) was between counting after the breath cycle, and counting before the breath (three) cycle. As a result of this confusion, my breathing slowed down and I found myself pausing for longer (four) and longer between breathing out and breathing in again.
I felt deeply calm (five). Drawing in air, slowly, holding it, slowly letting it out again; slowly, slowly. Empty lungs; mind watching the body, waiting for signs that the cycle is about to being afresh. Lungs still empty; mind still watching.
Six, I counted, as my body desperately sucked in oxygen. I’d over-analysed the process; lost my natural breathing. I attempt to let go and allow the cycle to get back to a regular, normal rhythm.
Seven – breathe in, breathe out…
Eight – breathe in, breathe out…
Nine – breathe in, breathe out…
I began to wonder how long the meditation would last; we had got to the second stage, but how many stages were there? And how long did each last? I tried to estimate how long the first stage had been; I guessed at it being around ten minutes.
I don’t know how much time I wasted on these queries and calculations, before I remembered that I was meant to be meditating. I re-focused once more.
One – breathe in, breathe out…
Two – breathe in, breathe out…
Three – breathe in, breathe out…
The bowl was rung for the third time.
“In the next stage, we keep our focus on our breath, but we stop counting.”
At first I was relieved that we didn’t have to count any more, but soon found that my thoughts were wandering far more than before. I brought my attention back to my breathing and my body, and became conscious that my posture had once more become stiff, and that the lower parts of my legs were hurting.
I tried to relax myself, to gently ease the tension in my limbs and get comfortable once more. But the relief from the pain in my ankles, calves and thighs didn’t last long.
I then tried to just be aware of the sensations I was experiencing and not let them distract me; make them a part of my meditation. This worked for a brief while, but the pain gradually increased, until it threatened to became intolerable.
So I sat there, teeth gritted, trying to ride out the session. I wasn’t meditating now, just enduring. Surely, I thought, we must be nearly finished. But another minute rolled slowly by and the pain became too much; I had to admit defeat. I opened my eyes and, as quietly as I could, untangled my lower limbs. My left foot had gone completely dead; I shook the leg and it waggled around like a rag doll’s.
The bowl was rung for the fourth time.
“In the last stage, we focus on the air coming in and out of the nose, as it enters and leaves the body.”
I was thankful that this was the final part of the meditation. I sat there, hugging my knees as Ellie had done the night she first visited my dreams. I glanced around the room, but it seemed rude to look at people as they meditated, unaware that they were being observed, so I shut my eyes again and waited for the signal that the meditation was finished.
My thoughts drifted back to my concerns of Wednesday evening, and I found that my thinking seemed much clearer and flowed easier. I understood that the mere fact that I had doubts, and was concerned about my mental health, showed that I had not lost all reason. The incident of that day – when I had put up all those images of Ellie around my desk – was an unfortunate lapse of consideration. I had simply become so absorbed in what was going on in my own world that I hadn’t thought about how other people would respond to seeing her picture. If I had paused to think about it, I’d have realised that it was a course of action likely to cause upset, and I would have therefore not gone ahead with it. In order to ensure I didn’t make such a mistake again, I just needed to be aware of how my actions might impact on others, and maintain a sense of perspective. And anyway, I thought to myself, wasn’t I plotting, just before Ellie’s spirit entered my life, to murder Tony? Shouldn’t I be more worried and guilty about planning to end another human being’s life than about putting up some pictures of a dead person?
I realised that it was counter-productive to doubt the reality of Ellie’s presence, as this would make me vulnerable to angst-ridden introspection and increase the chances of my behaviour becoming erratic. It didn’t help at all, and caused problems. Far better to take her on trust; wasn’t that, after all, what faith was all about? So I should just accept her – accept that she was with me, that we were united in some way, and take things from there.
A surge of joy erupted from deep within me; I opened my inner senses to Ellie, and warmth and kindness suffused my being. Surrendering myself to her love, water welled up in my eyes, and a single tear of happiness trickled down my cheek.
I forgot where I was and what was happening. I lost track of time entirely. I floated somewhere beyond myself, somewhere that transcended thought and identity.
I was pulled back from this distant place by the bowl being rung three times in quick succession, scattering the atmosphere of silent stillness. One by one, each person opened their eyes, stretched, got up, put away their mat, cushion and blanket, and made their way out the door. I noticed that some bowed to the Buddha before leaving; from my martial arts training I was used to continual bowing to show respect and attention, so I merrily joined in the practice.
Returning to the room downstairs, around half the people headed straight off, while those remaining milled around, chatting in pairs or small groups, while kettles were switched on. I went back over to examine the books again. Amongst the many titles some particularly caught my attention: The Gem Ornament; The Priceless Jewel; The Wheel and the Diamond; The Light of Wisdom; The Myth of Freedom; Returning to Silence; and, The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna.
Rajagaha came up to me and asked, “How did your meditation go?”
“Okay,” I replied. “As I’m out of practice, my posture became painful after a bit, so I couldn’t quite manage the whole session. But once I’m back at it regularly, I’m sure I’ll be able to sit longer without any trouble.”
“Have you tried different ways of sitting? Perhaps a cushion would help. A lot of people just sit in a chair. Whatever’s comfortable – without being so comfortable that you fall asleep!”
I laughed, but wasn’t completely convinced; I’m sure I’d read somewhere that some postures were better than others. “I’ll see how I go,” I responded.
We were interrupted by Gita. “Would you like a drink?” she asked, looking back and forth from Rajagaha to myself. “Herbal tea? Fruit tea? Green tea? Ordinary tea?”
Rajagaha replied first. “Thank you, a lemon and ginger tea would be lovely, Gita.”
“Yes,” I added. “The same for me, please! Thank you very much, Gita.”
I turned back to Rajagaha, and indicated the books. “Can I borrow any of these? I’d be interested in finding out a bit more about Buddhism.”
“We ask that people complete the introductory course before they take any books out of the centre. It’s easy for someone to turn up at the centre one lunchtime, do some meditation and pick up a book, completely intending to come back another lunchtime and return it, but they never quite get round to it.”
“Fair enough. Just one question – what’s the introductory course?”
“It’s a broad introduction to Buddhism, starting with the Buddha’s life, then looking at the main points of Buddhist philosophy and practice. The course lasts eight weeks, and the classes are held on Tuesday evenings.”
“Right,” I said, nodding as I absorbed the details. “And when’s the next course start?”
“That will be in eight weeks’ time. Week one of the current course was this Tuesday, just gone.”
“Fair enough,” I said once more, no alternative comment coming to mind.
Gita appeared again, filling the lull in the conversation, and gave us our teas.
“Do you not have a drink?” I asked her.
“Oh, I’m just about to get one,” she replied.
During this brief interlude, Rajagaha had stepped away to join a nearby discussion, so I followed Gita as she went and made herself a peppermint tea.
I searched for something to say. “Have you been coming here long, Gita?”
“Oh, about seven years. I started coming here when I was at university. When I finished my studies, I kind of just hung around.”
We talked about our experiences at university, and what we had done since.
The room started to empty as people finished their drinks, gave their goodbyes, and drifted off. I helped wash up the used cups, then, preparing to leave, remembered the dhana bowl. I dropped a five pound note in, then put my shoes and coat on and stepped outside. I took the opportunity to read the notice on the door:
Drop-in meditation classes: Tuesday, 1-2pm; 7:30-8:30pm
At the bottom there was a web address and a telephone number.
I was just about to turn away and resume the task which had brought me into town in the first place, when Gita exited the building.
I smiled at her and said, “Thanks for the tea and the chat, Gita. It was very nice to meet you.”
“Oh, it was my pleasure too. I hope to see you here again.”
“Well, then I’ll do my best to return. But before you go, could you give me a little help? I’ve managed to get myself a little lost; could you point me in the direction of the town centre?”
“Oh, sure – come on, it’s this way.”
She lead me to the alleyway she and Carol had appeared from earlier, and I was soon back in familiar territory.
“Thanks again, Gita. Take care of yourself!”
“Oh, don’t mention it. You take care too, Tim.”
I headed in the direction of the nearest charity shop, determined to find a frame worthy of the photograph of Ellie.
The first one I went into didn’t have any that were the right size or colour, but a couple of tea-light holders caught my attention. They were heart-shaped, and made of red glass; although not the kind of thing that would usually interest me, I had a sudden urge to buy them. I thought about the candles and flowers that had decorated the Buddha’s shrine, before which I had been sat only half-an-hour ago, and a thrill of devotion and joy swept through me as I decided to honour Ellie with something similar. So I purchased them, together with a large rectangular cloth decorated with a gold and green pattern.
Moving on to another shop, I found a small statue of the Virgin Mary. I remembered then that the church where Ellie’s funeral had been held was called ‘The Church of the Immaculate Heart of the Holy Mother‘, so I thought it appropriate to go on the shrine I was planning. I bought the statue, and a wooden crucifix which bore the suffering Christ – somehow, it would have seemed odd not to get both, even though I had no particular interest in Jesus, nor any desire to worship God.
The third and final charity shop I went into had a perfect photo-frame; it was bright red and sparkled brilliantly.
I now had everything I needed, so headed home, humming vigorously.
Once indoors, I went to work. From my spare room I liberated a side table that I man-handled into my bedroom and placed against the wall opposite my bed. In order to accommodate it, I had to move the chair I’d brought up the other evening, which still had Ellie’s picture sitting on it from the night before.
I spread the patterned cloth over the table-top, put Ellie’s picture in its frame and placed it centre-rear, close to the wall, then added the statue of the Virgin Mary to her right. I fetched up the vase of flowers and these went to her left. The tea-light holders were added next, toward the front of the table, one before the Virgin Mary and the other in front of the flowers. Lastly, I hammered a nail into the wall above Ellie’s photo, from which I hung the crucifix.
Happy with all that I’d done, I had a bath, then went out again to buy some tea-lights, matches, food and drink.
I barely tasted my dinner, and only drank one bottle of beer while I ate. It had been a long day, and I was tired and ready to retire for the night. So, I took a couple of the tea-lights I’d bought and the matches upstairs, lit the candles and put them in the holders, then turned off the bedroom light and knelt down in front of Ellie’s shrine.
It looked amazing in the soft glow of the candles, and a haze of water blurred my vision as I sat and stared.
Solemnly, I put my hands together as if in prayer, made the sign of the cross (knowing no other way to make a formal gesture of worship), and bowed down until my forehead nearly touched the floor. Coming back upright, I focused my gaze on Ellie’s picture.
“Thank you, Ellie.” I said gently. “Thank you for such a wonderful day. I’m so glad to have attended the meditation at the Buddhist centre. They seem like a nice bunch; especially Gita – she reminds me a little of you! So helpful, and kind, and funny! I’m sure you must have guided my footsteps there; I’d never have thought of going along myself!” I chortled, then paused for a moment, becoming more serious.
“I hope you approve of what I’m doing… It’s going to be a long twenty-five days until I speak with you again! But, in the meantime, this will help. You told me to have faith in you, and I do, Ellie; complete faith. Thank you so much for all you’ve done for me so far. It’s been so long since my life had any meaning, since I looked forward to another day, but now everything’s fantastic – thanks to you.”
I couldn’t think of anything more to add, so I simply stopped talking. I knelt in silence before her for a little longer, but it wasn’t comfortable and my legs were still complaining from meditating early in the day.
I sighed, bowed again, and stood up. I got undressed, then, ready to go to sleep, blew out the candles and climbed into bed.
“I love you, Ellie,” I said into the darkness. “Goodnight, my angel.”
When I woke up the next morning, I felt profoundly alive and well – at peace with myself, and the world, and brimming with energy.
I sat on my bed for a while and stared at the shrine I’d made to honour Ellie. It was beautiful, and she deserved no less.
“Good morning, my angel,” I said to her. “I love you, and thank you for being with me, and sharing my life.”
I noticed that the flowers, which I’d brought home on Tuesday, were starting to look a little tired, and I resolved to replace them.
I went downstairs and had a cuppa and a bite to eat, then decided to meditate for a while. I took a cushion from my sofa up to Ellie’s shrine, and sat for twenty minutes; I had hoped to last longer, but became restless and thought that a walk would be a good idea.
It was cold again outside, but I didn’t really feel it. There was a park a mile or so from my house, and I gave it a quick circuit before pausing to take in a view of trees and drifting clouds, with the city in the background. I opened myself to Ellie’s presence, and imagined her standing close beside me. Gently, I cupped my hand, as if holding hers; I felt – or imagined – a light touch of warmth on my palm.
I shivered with delight, then turned my feet homeward, envisioning Ellie soaring above me on white wings. I remembered my earlier resolution, and popped into a florist’s where I purchased her a rather extravagant bouquet.
I admit that my mood was a little silly, sentimental, possibly even romantic, but I couldn’t see any harm in this, and had nobody else to share such moments with.
Over the course of the weekend I carried on imagining Ellie being physically with me; I chatted to her, laughed with her, and even put some music on and danced around my living room for her entertainment. Instead of eating take-aways I cooked for myself, although when I sat down to eat I pretended that she had made the meal, and I toasted her with bottles of beer one night, glasses of wine the next.
And, to finish each happy day, I bowed before her shrine, which was now somewhat dominated by the new floral arrangement, and thanked her for every wonderful minute.
The pictures I’d brought home with me from work I stuck up about the house, so I could see her smiling face in every room – apart from the bathroom; I didn’t feel quite so comfortable with her presence when I was sat on the toilet, or soaking in the tub. I am, you see, at heart, a modest man.
Monday came around all too quickly, but in my positive state of mind work didn’t seem like anything to be bothered about, and I arrived at the office early. I got on with things, until around ten o’clock, when Joan came marching towards my desk.
“We need to ‘ave a word,” she said dramatically. “I’ve booked t’ one-to-one room. Get a coffee if yer like.” And with that, she strode off.
I shook my head. Standard procedure dictated that, after a sickness absence, an employee must sit down with their manager to have a ‘return to work’ discussion, and I assumed it was this that Joan was talking about. It was typical of her to make a mountain out of a mole-hill, so I didn’t think too much of her tone or attitude.
When I got into the one-to-one room (which was the size of a walk-in cupboard) Joan was already there, paperwork spread out on the tiny table. I squeezed myself into the vacant chair, and waited.
Joan looked up; her expression hostile and angry. “Well then,” she demanded. “’Ow do yer explain yoursen?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “Explain what, exactly, Joan?” I asked.
“Explain why, when yer were off sick, and should ‘ave been resting at ‘ome, yer were seen Friday lunchtime in town. Shoppin’!”
I stared at her in disbelief.
“If yer well enough to go paradin’ round shops, yer well enough to come to work!” she remarked stridently.
I had to nip this in the bud before she started quoting bits of the Red Book at me, and knew that the fact that she had suggested I take the time off work in the first place would make no difference to how she saw the situation. “Joan – if I may? I had come into town for a meditation lesson, at the Buddhist Centre. On my way back, I stopped to pick up some things to help me start meditating at home. As you’ll aware, I wasn’t physically sick, it was more an emotional issue I was dealing with. I did some research and it seemed that meditation would be useful, that it would improve my situation, and help me to sort out the stuff going on in my head. Does that explain things sufficiently for you?”
“Oh,” she replied, quite caught off guide by my cogent and completely convincing response. It was mostly a pack of lies, but I had no qualms about using deceit to counter her craziness.
I carried on. “Isn’t it the responsibility of each staff member to do what they can to maintain their health and well-being? You wouldn’t rebuke somebody for going to see the doctor, or for visiting the chemists’, while they were off sick, would you? I was taking the steps that seemed most appropriate to facilitate my return to work as expediently as possible.” I had to stop there; I was close to bursting with laughter at all the management-speak tripping off my tongue.
“I can understan’ that,” said Joan, very much deflated. She looked down at the paperwork. “So, yer feelin’ better now? There’s no adjustments we need t’ make t’ ‘elp yer settle back in, like?”
“No, Joan, I can’t think of any. Thank you for your concern, but I’ve got a number of emails to get through after my absence. Can I go now?”
“Okay, yer go on, then. I’ll just fill in t’ paperwork – ‘ere, just sign this first, t’ say we’ve done t’ ‘return to work’. I’ll do t’ rest, and give yer a copy later.”
I signed the document. “Thanks, Joan,” I said, extracting myself from the room.
Back at my desk I shook my head and, to sooth my iritation, opened the drawer in my desk with Ellie’s picture in it so I could look upon her face. “You see what I’m dealing with here?” I asked. “You’re lucky you didn’t have Joan for a manager – she could drive anyone to suicide all by herself!”
The smile dropped from my face as I took offence at my own joke. I took a gulp of lukewarm coffee and got on with my work. That’s what I was being paid to do, after all.
* * * * *
When I got home that evening, I sat and read the last of Way of the Peaceful Warrior. I noticed a number of similarities in the experiences I had had and those which Dan had been through, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the two. More than this, the book had inspired me and provided suggestions as to how I should live – the path that I should follow. What seemed best would be a simple life consisting of meditation, the study of the great spiritual masters, and the practice of martial arts. And where Dan had had his guide, Socrates, I had mine, Ellie, whom I was sure would correct me, were I making any mistakes in my choice of direction, when next we spoke.
A simple life didn’t sound like something very difficult to achieve, which I suppose is the point of it. I thought that all I really had to do was keep meditating regularly and pick up martial arts again. I considered returning to Aikido, which I had studied for many years and had reached first kyu (the belt before black belt, which is called first dan) but eventually decided to try something different; not another Japanese art (I’d also studied Jujitsu and a very little Karate when I was young); perhaps something Chinese. Being limited to walking or public transport, I’d see what was available locally, and then decide.
I wondered what to do next. I was looking forward to returning to the Buddhist Centre the following afternoon for the Tuesday drop-in meditation session, and recalled that in the evening they would be running the second week of the Introduction to Buddhism course. Although I’d missed the first session, I wondered if they might let me join the course if I made my own study of the Buddha’s life, covering what I assumed I’d missed in the first week. Accordingly, I reached for another of the books I’d taken out of the library; Fifty Eastern Thinkers. I went to the contents; sure enough, the Buddha was listed there, so I turned to the appropriate page and started reading. The entry was quite short, and contained only vary basic biographical details, but it was a sufficient introduction to give me some things to think about. For one thing, I discovered that re-birth, in Buddhist terms, was a great deal more subtle than I had held it to be, though I could still not account for the idea in scientific terms. But, then, I didn’t whole-heartedly trust these any more – there was no scientific explanation which could account for Ellie’s presence in my life, other than one which involved me having lost my mind. I was reasonably certain that I hadn’t, so there had to be something else, something that transcended science. Something about which science either had to remain silent, or drastically alter its basic metaphysical assumptions in order to investigate.
I considered what I had read while eating dinner and drinking red wine, before heading upstairs to sit at Ellie’s shrine for a time. I thanked her for everything good that she had brought me, and went to bed with a light and hope-filled heart.
The next day I worked through the morning, but when it reached noon I surreptitiously accessed Wikipedia on my computer to get more information on the Buddha’s life. At twelve forty-five I officially broke for lunch, to give myself quarter of an hour to walk to the Buddhist Centre.
I arrived with a few minutes to spare, and looked around for Rajagaha. He didn’t appear to be there; there was no sign of Gita either, or even Carol. There were a few people I recognised from the Friday session, but I hadn’t spoken with them, didn’t know their names, and wasn’t forward enough to introduce myself. So I returned to the shelves of books.
A youngish man with a beard, baring various tattoos on his arms, approached me. “Hello,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’m Neranjara.”
“Hi,” I replied as we shook hands. “Tim. I came here for my first time on Friday.”
“And you’ve come back again. That’s a good sign.”
“I hope so!” I said with a laugh, then asked; “I assume from your name that you’re involved the centre?”
“Not necessarily the case, although it does happen to be true. Do you have a question?”
“Yes – I was wondering something about the introductory course that’s running this evening?”
He nodded for me to continue.
“I realise that I missed the first part of the course last week, but I’ve read up a little about the Buddha and his life, and wondered if I could join in? I’m keen to attend.”
“It’s good that you’re enthusiastic, and I’m sure that would be okay. I’m running the class this evening.”
“That’s a relief. I didn’t want to wait for the next one.”
“Any particular reason for the hurry?”
“Not really; as I say, I’m just keen. And I’ve been told I need to do the course before I can borrow any books from your library.”
It was his turn to laugh. “I see!”
“I’m trying to find a spiritual path,” I explained. “So I’m looking for pointers.”
“Good luck with that, and I hope you find what you’re looking for. Right, I think we should be making a start.”
He walked over to the circle of seats. Beside one of the chairs was a stool, on top of which sat a bowl similar to the one in the Shrine Room above. He struck it to gain the room’s attention.
“Right, you lucky people, it’s time to meditate! Is anyone completely new to meditation, or want a re-fresher?” Nobody responded. “Okay then; today we’re doing the Metta Bhavana. Does everyone know this one?” He looked in my direction, and I shook my head.
“No problem, I’ll give a quick run-through before we start, and give a re-cap for each section. Everyone, upstairs.”
We all filed up to the Shrine Room; I grabbed a mat and found a place, then got into my posture.
“Right,” said Neranjara once everyone was seated and the candles had been lit. “The meditation we’re going to do is the Metta Bhavana, which means ‘development of loving-kindness.’ It has five stages, and we cultivate this sense of loving-kindness toward a different person in each: ourself during the first stage; a good friend in the second; a neutral person in the third; somebody you find difficult, or you just don’t like, during the fourth; and, in the final stage, everyone in the world. Simple enough?”
There were a few sniggers from around the room.
“I’ll wait a minute before starting the meditation to give everyone time to settle and to choose the people they want to put into stages two, three and four. During each stage we aim to develop an attitude of loving-kindness toward the particular person we’re focussing on; the traditional way of doing this is to wish them well and recite in one’s mind: ‘May they be well, may they be happy; may they be free from suffering; may they make progress in their life’. But, if that doesn’t work for you, feel free to try something else that helps you attain this kind and loving attitude. Just a couple of quick tips on your choices; for the second stage, choose a friend who’s of the same gender as yourself, or at least one that you’re not attracted to; you don’t want any romantic thoughts distracting you from the meditation! And, for the ‘difficult person’, don’t choose someone you really hate or has hurt you very badly, until you’ve developed this meditation to the point where you can handle thinking about them without producing a strongly negative emotional response.”
I’d not heard of such a meditation before, and initially it seemed somewhat strange – my understanding was that the aim of meditation was to quiet the mind and the emotions, to foster an experience free from the self and all attachments. But I thought I’d give it a go; I certainly couldn’t see anything wrong in becoming more kind and loving. I pondered on who to choose as a good friend, a neutral person, and a person I didn’t get on with.
“Right, let’s begin. Metta Bhavana, first stage – yourself. May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering, may I make progress in my life.” Neranjara rang the bowl.
I shut my eyes and started to repeat these phrases. It seemed, on the one hand, easier than the mindfulness of breathing to keep focused on the meditation, but, on the other, more difficult to know if I was getting it right. I found myself to be merely calm and peaceful, rather than becoming full of loving-kindness as was the aim.
Several minutes went by, and I began to get frustrated. I would say to myself: ‘May I be well’ – and another part of my mind would respond: ‘You’re not ill, are you?’
“May I be happy’ – ‘How could you be any happier?’
‘May I be free from suffering.” – ‘What suffering?’
‘May I make progress in my life.’ – ‘Aren’t you making progress? Isn’t the fact that you’re here progress in itself?
I thought about making some changes; maybe bring Ellie into the meditation somehow, but I wasn’t sure if that would lead me to develop the wrong kind of feelings, or develop the right ones but in the wrong way. Another idea was to change the wording, make up different phrases that would be more personally relevant, but, again, I wasn’t sure if I’d be doing the meditation properly – even though I’d been told to try something else if the traditional method wasn’t working, I felt that I should at least bear with it for my first attempt.
‘May I be well.’ – ‘Whatever you say.’
‘May I be happy.’ – ‘If that’s what you want.’
‘May I be free from suffering.’ – ‘Yeah, okay, why not?’
‘May I make progress in my life.’ – ‘Why don’t you go suck an egg?’
I nearly burst out laughing at this semi-sequitur, and had to desist with developing loving-kindness and instead bring my attention to my breath until I had myself under control.
Neranjara rang the bowl for a second time, and said, “Entering the second stage, bring to mind a good friend. May they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress with their life.”
I chose for this stage Dicey. ‘May you be well and happy, Dicey,‘ I thought, and did feel a spark of kindness come alive within me. ‘May you be free from suffering. May you make progress in your life.‘
It was pleasant thinking about Dicey, wishing him well and hoping for the best for him. I repeated the phrases, imagining him smiling and happy and everything being good in his life. But then I started to recall some of the many surreal conversations we’d had, and came close to laughing again.
When the bowl rang for the third time, Neranjara instructed; “in the third stage, we turn to someone neutral – someone we don’t know and haven’t developed any particular attitude towards. It might be someone you see but don’t really interact with; a bus driver, postman, or your local shop-keeper. So; ‘may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress with their life’.”
I brought my attention to a colleague, Nigel, who kept himself to himself to an even greater degree than I did. Despite working in the same office for several years, I could not recall ever having spoken with him – our positions were in completely different business areas, so there was no reason for us to interact so far as our respective duties went.
Carrying some of the positivity I had developed while thinking of Dicey over to thinking of Nigel, I got off to a good start. ‘May you be well, Nigel,‘ I thought, ‘May you be happy and free from suffering. May you make progress in your life.’
A warm feeling of magnanimity grew as I iterated and re-iterated the phrases, but this made me somewhat blasé and my attention drifted, until I realised I was becoming self-satisfied; my imagination created a picture of me walking through the city and beaming out joy and happiness in all directions, while people lined the streets and cheered and clapped as I passed. Guiltily, I let go of the image and re-focused my attention.
The bowl was rang for the penultimate stage. “Now we concentrate on a person we find difficult; it might be somebody you don’t get on with, or somebody who’s upset you. ‘May they be happy, may they be free from suffering, may they make progress in their life.’”
I said goodbye to Nigel and drew to mind the ‘difficult’ person I had chosen. ‘May Joan be well and happy,” I said to myself, not noticing my teeth gritting. ‘May Joan be free from suffering,‘ I thought, while there arose in my mind an image of her being run over by a bus. ‘May Joan make progress in her life,‘ I added, and accompanying this wish was the hope that she’d get a new job, elsewhere, and leave.
I tried repeating the phrases, but found myself getting angry, which made my body tense. My lower legs – mostly the calves and ankles – were sending me stronger and stronger signals of pain. I did what I could to relax and shift about a little to find a more comfortable posture, but it wasn’t enough, and I decided to ease off. Slowly, gently, I untied my legs and savoured the relief this brought, while reflecting on my experience of the stage; I hadn’t realised, until now, that I actually hated Joan.
The bell was rang once more. “In the final stage, we remind ourselves of the people we’ve meditated on, wishing them happiness, freedom from suffering, and progress in their lives, and then extend this outward. Include all the people in the room here, then all the people in the city, all the people in the country, all the people in the world. If you find that easy, bring your loving-kindness – your metta – to all living beings; every being that lives anywhere throughout the universe.”
My arms around my legs, I rested my head on my knees and imagined myself, Dicey, Nigel and Joan stood together, as if at the four points of a compass. We hold hands, and light shines out from us. Then my perspective shifted to a bird’s-eye view and drew upwards; standing in a wider circle around the four of us were the meditators sitting with me. They joined their hands together and light pours forth from them. Up again and another circle, composed of colleagues, neighbours, and people I knew from around the city. As my perspective rose ever higher I could no longer make out individual people; all I saw were progressively wider and wider rings of light, stretching across the world.
I enjoyed this scene, and let it play out in my mind. The Earth receded, covered in glowing circles, and my sight now took in the whole galaxy. Here and there planets pulsed with life, and this life emitted light – a special, spectral light that outshone the stars.
It was a glorious view, and, when the bowl was rung three times to indicate the meditation was finished, I was almost sorry to let it go.
* * * * * * * *
I didn’t bother staying for a cup of tea this time, but hurried back to the office. I didn’t want to have so long a lunch-break that Joan would have another reason to ‘have a word’ with me, or that I’d have to stay late in the office to make up my hours.
I felt calm and compassionate after the meditation, and realised that I had an apology to make – to Emma.
She was sat at her desk; I walked over and stood nearby until she noticed me.
“Uh, hi, Tim,” she said in a flat tone.
“Hi, Emma,” I responded. “I just wanted to apologise to you – for sticking up those pictures of Ell… of Ellen, around my desk last week. I’m so sorry; I’d kind of lost the plot a little. I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
“It’s been difficult for all her friends,” Emma remarked, her voice touched by a note of sympathy. She looked down for a moment, then back at me. “There’s counselling available, you know. Just contact HR and they’ll arrange it. It might help.”
“Thanks… I’ll think about it, but I’m not sure it would do me much good. A psychiatrist might be more useful, though I’d probably end up in a straight-jacket if I talked to one of them!”
A brief, wry smile flashed across Emma’s face.
“Anyway, I just wanted to say ‘sorry’ and that it won’t happen again. I hope… I do hope you’re okay, Emma. Ellen didn’t mean to hurt us; she wouldn’t want us to be sad.”
Emma shrugged. “Thanks, Tim, and I’m sure you’re right, but it doesn’t stop the pain. I’ll never understand why she did it.”
I hesitated for a second, a number of possible replies occurring to me, but I didn’t want to risk putting my foot in it, so I just smiled sympathetically and walked away.
* * * * * * * *
I left the office early, rushed home, had a bite to eat and relaxed for a bit, before returning to town for the introductory course.
I arrived at the centre just before seven thirty. There were many coats and pairs of shoes in the entrance area; I added mine to them.
I walked through into the room; there were maybe twenty people already there, chatting in pairs or small groups, or just milling around. I went and got myself a cup of water and noticed Gita chatting with Neranjara. I sidled up to them.
Gita saw me and grinned. “Oh, hi, you,” she said. “Good to see you again.”
I smiled back at her. “Good to see you, too, Gita. How’s it going?”
“Oh, it’s going very well, thank you. Have you met Neranjara?”
“He has,” said Neranjara. “This is the eager young man I mentioned.”
I nodded and laughed; “I’ll admit to being eager, but I’d say that ‘young’ is a little wide of the mark. I’m just about middle-aged.”
Gita giggled. “Oh, we’re only as old as we feel. And you don’t look middle-aged.”
“Thank you,” I said, “But, if it’s the case that we’re as old as we feel, I’m probably closer to eighty than eighteen. Grown old before my time.”
“Oh, I think I’m the opposite,” said Gita. “I’m still about eight – just a little girl, not even a teenager!”
“Well,” Neranjara remarked. “It’s good to see the aged and the young getting along so nicely. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to lock the door and get this evening’s proceedings under way.”
A few minutes later we were all in the Shrine Room.
“Okay,” said Neranjara, as everyone sat down, whether on a chair, a cushion, or cross-legged on a mat, ready to meditate. “This evening we’ll be doing the ‘mindfulness of breathing’ meditation. For those of you on the introductory course, this is the same meditation we did last week.”
Neranjara gave guidance during the mindfulness of breathing, as Rajagaha had done on Friday. I’d been practising this at home, so was quite comfortable with it, although was still finding it difficult to manage more than half-an-hour without succumbing to pain in the legs and ankles. I was sure though, that after a few weeks, I’d be able to last longer.
After the meditation had finished we went back downstairs, and I helped Gita with making cups of tea. She didn’t get one herself; “Oh, I’ve got to go,” she explained. “I only come along on Tuesday evenings for the meditation – I completed the introductory course years ago! I do usually stay and chat for a bit, but my husband wants to go out tonight. I think we’re going to see a film.”
“I hope you enjoy it,” I told her.
“Oh, thanks,” she replied. “And I hope you enjoy the lesson. The Dharma truly is amazing!”
“See you next time.”
“You too. Take care!”
It was not only Gita who left, but almost half the people present. A dozen of us remained.
Chairs had been set out, not in a circle as was usual for the afternoon drop-in meditation sessions, but in rows, like a classroom. We settled ourselves with our drinks and Neranjara stood at the front, beside a flip-chart.
“Okay,” he began. “This week we’re going to be looking at the five spiritual faculties, which are – in no particular order – faith, wisdom, concentration, vigour, and mindfulness.” He indicated the flip-chart, on which had been drawn a cross; in the middle was the word ‘mindfulness’, at the top was ‘vigour’, at the bottom ‘concentration’, to the left was ‘faith’ and to the right, ‘wisdom’.
“I’ll explain briefly what the terms mean in this context. ‘Faith’ in this regard isn’t about having particular beliefs, or having a particular conviction, but refers to having a sense of devotion and a deep response to spiritual things, such as nature or religious works of art. It could also be extended to intuitive, as opposed to reasoned, understanding.
“’Wisdom” is used here in much the same way as ‘sophia’ is meant in the Greek word ‘philosophia’, from which we get ‘philosophy’ – meaning, literally, ‘love of wisdom’. So, it refers to rational, logical thought. Some might include scientific thinking and study as part of wisdom.
“Next, ‘vigour’, means having energy, doing things with a certain intensity. Someone with a lot of vigour tends to be quite active. Although it is possible to have vigour and not be rushing around; one can take things slowly but at the same time approach them with energy. One can even meditate vigorously.
“’Concentration’ refers to having mental focus and not losing sight of what one is doing. It’s more or less what we usually mean by the word.
“Finally, we come to ‘mindfulness’, which is subtly different to ‘concentration’. Mindfulness means having awareness of what you are doing, being aware of yourself and your surroundings, and of other people. Whereas with concentration you might lose track entirely of your environment – be so focused on something that you forget everything else – mindfulness keeps us in the present and in touch with what is going on around us.
“As you can see from the diagram, four of the five faculties are put in opposed pairs – faith and wisdom, and vigour and concentration – which most people lean to one or the other side of. For example, somebody might have a lot of vigour, be very energetic and always up and about, doing things, but they may not have much in the way of concentration, and therefore be prone to getting distracted or starting something and then moving on to something else without finishing what they were doing originally. Or someone might have a high level of concentration, be able to think things through very thoroughly, but not have much get-up-and-go; they might tend to think about things rather than do them, and be rather lazy.
“Likewise, faith and wisdom. Most people would tend to favour, tend to be strong, in one or the other.
“Mindfulness is found in the middle because it doesn’t have a positive opposite; it is an end in itself. You can’t have too much mindfulness.
“Now, according to the Buddha, in order to develop ourselves spiritually, we need to cultivate all five of these faculties. Instead of seeing faith and wisdom as being in conflict, as being a choice between one or the other, Buddhism says that you need both. Faith without wisdom can lead one to believe in any old superstitious nonsense, whereas wisdom without faith can lead one to reject all meaning, and leave one without any purpose in life. This is the position typical of what one might call ‘scientism’ – the misunderstanding of science and its methods, and its misuse as a general philosophical position, as an approach to life which lacks all context and meaning.
“So, we need to balance our faith and wisdom, and our vigour and concentration. We shouldn’t get too one-sided in any of these. Developing our mindfulness will help us with this; the more mindful we are, the more balanced we will become as we realise our lopsided nature and work on it.”
I listened to the lecture with interest. I hadn’t known what to expect from the course, and thought I might find it rather dull and not tell me much that I didn’t know already, but instead I was intrigued. I regretted not having brought a notepad and pen with me.
The class finished at ten o’clock, and I walked home in the cold and dark, pondering what I’d learnt. In many ways it had confirmed that I was more or less on the right track, that the path I was contemplating was a spiritually fulfilling one, in that it included all these spiritual virtues. Faith was covered by my devotion to Ellie; wisdom through my studies, vigour through martial arts training, and mindfulness by meditation. I already had good concentration and was sure that, through my various activities, I could improve it further.
I got home and had a couple of bottles of beer while thinking some more, then brushed my teeth and went up to my bedroom.
I lit the candles on Ellie’s shrine and gazed lovingly on her picture, illuminated by the warm glow. Then I knelt down, crossed myself and bowed.
“Praise to you, Ellie!” I said. “Thank you so much for guiding me to the centre. I enjoyed tonight’s lesson, and look forward to the next one. Finally, after so many years, I feel like I’m starting to get somewhere! And it’s all because of you, Ellie. You’ve given me a direction, you’ve given me hope, you’ve given me love. You’ve given me everything that’s valuable; everything that’s worthwhile.
“I just hope that I’m making you proud, that I’m doing the right thing by you.”
When I got into bed, and whispered into the darkness my final ‘thank you’ and ‘goodnight, my angel!’, I was in a good mood. It’s a pity it didn’t last, that while I slept my whole world would be turned upside down.
But that’s life for you.