‘Where on earth has the Williams book on mindfulness gone?’ Bill muttered to himself furiously. ‘I knew it was a mistake to reorganise my books. Whenever I do that I can never find anything.’
He scanned his shelves, feeling as though his eyes were sticking out on stalks.
‘Ah, there it is,’ he spluttered triumphantly as he spotted it tucked at the top of a stack of books, almost hidden by the shelf above. He added it to the pile on his desk ready for the meditation experience that evening.
The plan was to do the meditation in the dining room. The upright chairs there were the only ones suitable for keeping a straight back in the hope of straightening the mind. The sitting room sofas and armchairs were great if you wanted to slump and sleep, but that wasn’t the aim this evening.
Carrying the books, he went downstairs to check on the state of the dining room.
‘That’s nice of her,’ he thought, as he spotted the small table with a candle which Mary, his wife, had placed in the centre of the space between chairs he’d laid out earlier. He spread the books on the dining table near the window: Easwaran, Williams, Leaping Hare and Thoresen.
There were only six straight-backed chairs and they were expecting seven people. He decided not to fret about that just yet. The first thing was to decide exactly what approach to take.
He had convinced himself that there were a number of those coming who hadn’t tried meditation before. Perhaps he should have been more surprised about this, given that currently meditation seems to be the third most popular activity after sleeping and eating, at least among his circle of acquaintances.
‘Right,’ he said to himself. ‘Think what to do. I’d better find out how much people really know. I think it’ll be pretty basic.’
He ran with that. He decided he’d make it clear he wasn’t an expert – more like we are all investigating together. He’d tell them it had taken him three months or so, when he started to meditate, to move from being able to focus on his chosen object of meditation for only a minute or so to being able to meditate, with the odd deviation, for ten minutes of more. He’d talk about how people differ and one size of meditation wouldn’t fit all. He’d use the example of how we all differ in terms of our default mode of sensing reality: some of us are visual and rely on our eyes, some are more auditory and verbal, preferring our ears, and some, like him, were tuned more into bodily sensations. He planned to give people a choice of how to meditate based on their preferences in this respect.
As he headed for the kitchen to make himself a coffee, he remembered a joke he’d read many years ago.
‘What do you do if you want to make God laugh?”
‘I don’t know. What do you do?’
‘Make a plan.’
‘I’ll just go with the flow,’ he smiled to himself.
. . . . . .
As the time for the session approached he found himself getting increasingly nervous. He kept pacing to the window to see whether any cars were driving up the slope to the house. He knew one person wasn’t coming: she’d had to visit her mother in hospital after an accident.
No chair problem, then. But it was already seven-twenty. Where was everyone else?
He spotted his car through the dining room window and realised it was parked too low down the drive. He went outside to pull it up a bit more to make room for the two other cars he was expecting. As he walked to the car with the keys in his hand, he saw a familiar figure in a fawn jumper striding round the corner at the bottom of the road. They grinned at each other.
‘I thought Megan was giving you a lift?’
‘She changed her mind. Not sure why,’ Ron replied.
‘Well, the walk will have done you good. Come on in.’
This plan to learn about meditation together seemed to be creating more stress than calm. Not what was planned at all.
‘It’ll just be the three of us and Fleur then, it seems,’ Bill said as they all sat down in the comfy hall chairs to wait for her.
Just as they began to explore why Megan and her friend hadn’t come, there was a knock at the door, somewhat to Ron’s relief.
‘Come in,’ Mary shouted.
‘She can’t,’ Bill exclaimed as he groped for the key. ‘The door’s locked.’
He opened it to find the tall pale figure of Fleur smiling just outside with her hand reaching for the door handle.
He welcomed her in and as they sat waiting for the magic moment of 7.30 to arrive he mentioned that Hereford looked as though it might be preparing to welcome its quota of refugees and that we might need to help in some way.
‘It’s fine but we need to find a way of putting an end to the wars that are driving this,’ Fleur replied.
‘Well,’ Bill said, ‘that’ll take at least a generation to achieve, and in the meanwhile we have to do something. I read a good suggestion somewhere that we should remove all restrictions and give everyone a visa for a year. That would give us breathing space to think, make quotas more acceptable, and go some way to making dangerous boat trips less appealing because there would be a legal way into Europe.’
On that note of relative harmony they all moved to the dining room where Bill lit the candle as they sat. He asked how much they knew about meditation and quailed to discover it was a lot more than he had thought. Plan A was looking suspect. There was no Plan B.
‘Oh well, blast on regardless,’ he thought, explaining in addition that this was not about having mystical experiences but about connecting with one’s true self at the deepest level.
Which they obligingly tried to do. A candle for the visually inclined, a mantram for the verbal and following the breath for the rest.
‘I just can’t stop my thoughts,’ Ron shared as they spoke about the experience they’d had. ‘I look at the candle and I’m analysing it straightaway. The flame’s trembling. It’s darker at the bottom. I just can’t stop.’
‘I find it easiest to meditate while walking. I just focus on the middle distance and my mind quietens down,’ was Fleur’s experience. ‘Sitting still is harder for me. The after image of the candle is more helpful than the candle itself.’
‘The candle flame works beautifully for me,’ Mary explained. ‘As I stare at the flame my mind goes silent and all that I experience is the glow of the flame.’
‘That shows how different we are,’ thought Bill to himself.
Out loud he added, ‘I tried all three just to see if my preference for bodily sensations had changed. The candle didn’t stop me thinking, but as Fleur said, the after image worked better. Even so I find following the breath works best.’
They agreed to try again with only one method.
‘Can I use my app?’ Ron asked.
‘Only if you have earphones,’ Bill crisped.
‘No. It’s OK. There’s no music or instructions. It’s just the bells. I can set it so we can meditate for 15 minutes with one bell at five minutes and another at 10.’
‘I can’t do fifteen minutes,’ Mary chipped in with a hint of panic in her voice. ‘Can we just do five again or can I step out?’
So it was agreed to do only five minutes with a bell after two.
As soon as the last bell rang, it was clear they’d all had enough. Even before Bill could ask for feedback, Fleur said, ‘Time for tea,’ and they all stood up.
. . . . . .
They sat in the relaxing chairs in the entrance hall, each sipping their different tea: two with mixed fruit, one with camomile, and Bill with his favourite lemon and ginger. Fleur was thumbing through Easwaran’s book, which she’d picked up off the dining room table, wondering what Bill’s purple question marks in the margins meant, but not daring to ask.
‘How do you know when you’re meditating and a thought comes, that it’s not from somewhere deep inside and should be attended to?’ asked Ron.
‘That’s a good question,’ Fleur said, lifting her head from the book.
‘It is,’ said Bill. ‘I often have that problem. If I’m meditating during a period when I’ve been struggling to solve a problem the answer, sometimes quite complex, comes shooting into my mind out of the blue. Nowadays I keep a pad and pen close by and write it down if it seems that important. If I don’t and keep meditating, I either keep thinking of the solution so I don’t forget it, spoiling the meditation, or focus on my mantram and at the end can’t remember what the solution was exactly.’
‘But wouldn’t it still be meditation if you simply focused on the answer you have found for the rest of the meditation time?’
‘I suppose it would,’ agreed Fleur. ‘That’s how creativity works. Ideas come when the mind is quiet and you need to catch hold of them when they come or you lose them.’
‘I think I meditate so that I can choose when to tune into my heart and receive these insights, rather than wait for them to come at random when I’m doing the dishes or I’m out for a walk,’ Fleur continued.
‘Or listening to music,’ Ron added.
There seemed to be general agreement on this point. Everyone felt it was a good time to stop. It remains to be seen if they will meet again next month.