We were driving down to Dorset, to a Care and Compassion weekend, and I was in a filthy temper.
It was late, half dark, and the traffic on the A303 was so bad that we had long ago waved goodbye to any thought of the Welcome cup of tea in the dining room. I was hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the gloom, and not listening to Anne, as she read out from the programme: “Anakolandata studied for five years in the forest monasteries of Thailand, before returning to his native Canada to set up the Insight and Mindfulness Centre in Novia Scotia. He has since taught in Germany, Israel and Sri Lanka…”
“Why would the Sri Lankans need a Canadian to teach them about Buddhism?” she pondered.
Anne pronounced everything very carefully, with cut-glass Edwardian vowels. Sir-i-ah-lank-ahns. “But I’ve heard he’s very good. Louisa Gilbert, who led the Heart of Wisdom week that I went on, said she heard him teach one time, and he was inspirational. But then, so was she. Such a wonderful young woman. Such a pity you couldn’t be there.”
“I was busy,” I said, braking at a major roundabout. “Working.”
The cars coming around the roundabout seemed to teem and pour towards us. I wondered what their drivers would see, if they looked in through our window. Two old trouts bundled up against the weather, heading out for choir practice, or home from walking the dog. My new glasses were much thicker than my last ones, giving me the surprised, goggle-eyed stare of a really elderly person looking out at the world. Anne, although she always tried to make herself look perky and ageless with interesting ear-rings and unusual scarves, nevertheless had a neck that looked like a half-deflated balloon.
I nudged my way into a gap in the traffic, then accelerated hard around the roundabout and shot out the other side.
“Well done!” said Anne, encouragingly. “Not long now. It’s only half an hour once we turn off the main road.”
I looked at my watch. Twenty five past five. Yet I had left home in good time and been out of London before twelve. But somewhere near Basingstoke my mobile had rung, and it had been Anne asking if I could possibly do a tiny detour to pick her up from a friend’s house in Somerset. “It’ll only take a few minutes,” she had said. “Darling Celia, you won’t mind, will you? Only we wanted to find a time to stay with Julian and Eleanor, and this seemed such a perfect opportunity, especially as Richard can stay on with them for the weekend while I’m away. Then, when I get back, we’re driving straight on to the Callingtons. Do you remember them? They’ve got the Travelling Opera Company coming for Help The Aged, they’re mounting Cosi in their barn, so we thought we ought to support them.”
Of course I didn’t mind, how could I? Even though the tiny detour was actually a good half an hour through back lanes from the main road, and even though, when I got there, I had to sit, parked like a chauffeur in a chair in the oak panelled hallway, while Anne buzzed about collecting her things and saying her goodbyes.
“Ah,” she said, sinking down in my passenger seat and closing her eyes, “so lovely to have some time to oneself for a change.”
I tried not to reflect too much on my life in contrast with hers, my two-bedroom flat in Barnes, my demanding and increasingly onerous job in contracts at the BBC, and the very modest pension I would have at the end of it, as we turned, at last, thank God -- although, of course, no such deity existed – off towards the Retreat Centre.
I did reflect, I couldn’t help it, on Anne’s greedy propensity to grab out at every opportunity that came her way, and her airy certainty that everyone else would bend themselves about to accommodate it. On her teeth-searing vowels. And on the fact that that it was me clutching at the steering wheel, navigating our way through the unknown dusky roads, while she arranged her hands on her lap and closed her eyes again in thoughtful anticipation of the weekend ahead.
You won’t have to speak to her again after tonight, I reminded myself. You won’t have to say a word.
By the time we got there it was dark. My back was hurting and my temper was as frayed as Anne’s ethnically-fringed skirt. We carried our bags from the car park through the oblongs of yellow light that fell out over the gravel, and a sign by the main door warned us sternly that Silence had already started. Then a helper came rustling in his robes along the corridor and bowed and whispered an illicit Namaste to each of us in turn.
I bobbed my head in awkward acknowledgement.
I tried my best to look the part.
But what I really wanted to say was: “Oh Namaste your bloody self. I need a cup of tea.”
About sitting in silence for three days there is nothing you can say.
You sit, and then you sit some more, and after that you sit again. Sometimes you wriggle on your cushion, or try to pull your blanket more closely around you, but after that you have exhausted your options. Crows sometimes caw outside, and the rain sometimes starts, and then stops again. You try not to think about how much your knees are hurting, or how many minutes have passed since the session started, or how you have suddenly remembered just how difficult this is and how much you are wishing you were back at home, in your kitchen, with a cup of coffee and the Saturday papers.
For a long time I found myself brooding on Anne and how much worse she was getting as she got older. On her irritating assumptions about her place in life, and mine, and on Richard’s thick, pillowy banker’s pension within which she rolled and played like a child in a hay meadow. Then Anne faded, and along came the parade of all my usual suspects, my divorce, my childlessness, my anxiety about the future-- Hello, I tried to say to them quietly as they came swinging around into view. So it’s you again, is it? Hello.
Anakolandata, of Nova Scotian fame, urged us in a rather nasal Canadian twang, to invite more loving kindness into our hearts. For ourselves, for others, for all sentient beings. Without it he said, we would be cracked pots and broken wheels. His vocal rhythms went up and down, like the Methodist preachers of my long-ago youth, but his message was far more gentle and forgiving. There was no God or sin in anything that he said, and we were to wish ourselves all blessings.
Meals were the only distraction. I, and I suspect everyone else as well, looked forward to them for hours before we were released to queue up silently in the dining room. There was porridge for breakfast. Lunch was vegetable stew or curry. Supper was soup.
And always, after meals, there was fruit, and a laminated sign in front of the fruit bowl that said “Will all Yogis please take only half a banana.”
“Why,” I asked Anne, after the first time she took me there, “do they have to call us Yogis? ‘Will all Yogis please take off their boots in the hallway.’ ‘Will all Yogis please turn off the lights’. It makes me feel so uncomfortable. I’m not a Yogi.”
“Oh, but you are,” she had said. “For the length of time that you are there, that’s exactly what you are.”
I knew I should be more grateful to Anne, my old friend, who had stumbled onto this path five years ago, after a niece had taken her along to a talk in London by the Dalai Lama, and who had then, with her usual rushing enthusiasm, swept me along with her. It had truly brought me many blessings. But this weekend it was proving too difficult. I could feel all my anger and irritation lodged like a sack of artichokes somewhere between my stomach and my throat.
After a time these feelings rose up out of me and roamed about and settled themselves on one of my fellow Yogis, a particularly annoying girl in a purple blanket, who wore full eye make-up at five in the morning and had a headful of tiny hennaed pigtails, each tied with a different coloured bow. This pretty young thing sat showily upright in the full lotus position to meditate, then trailed her blanket languidly in the corridors in a way that demanded we all looked her way. Like Anne, she seemed very sure of herself, and when I queued behind her in the dining hall for lunch she helped herself brazenly to a whole banana and carried it the length of the room to a vacant chair. I almost gasped at the effrontery. She did it again at supper time and the next morning I found myself manoeuvring into the queue close by her so that I could squint to see if she did it again. I knew I was supposed to be letting all hatreds and judgements blow through me like a wind blows through a forest, but instead my lips were tight and my bottle-eyed squint was locked on the girl, and her hand reaching, unerringly, yet again, for one whole banana.
By then it was Sunday and I was feeling so dispirited I signed up for an appointment to see Anakolandata. This felt very bold. I never saw myself as serious follower, more a fellow traveller, and had never deemed myself worthy of a private interview with any teacher before. But I was in great distress at the way my mood refused to settle.
I found him in a wing-backed chair in the library, his ankles crossed, his hands in his lap. I noticed, as I sat down, that his shins, under his robe, were disconcertingly white and hairless, like roots exposed from the ground, and worried briefly whether, amid all his meditating, he got much chance for fresh air and exercise. Then I felt my palms grow clammy, and wiped them surreptitiously down the sides of my skirt.
“She is one of my oldest friends,” I said, awkwardly, “Yet suddenly I’m eaten up with bad feelings about her,”
“What sort of feelings?”
“Hatred, envy.” I tried for an ironic smile. “Aversion. All the big ones.”
He stared at me. His eyes were strange, a cloudy blue-grey, as if all they ever saw were far horizons.
“I envy how she can simply be herself, and get away with so much. How she never bothers with anyone else’s feelings, and yet everyone seems to like her just the same—“
He waited. I swallowed.
“I suppose I envy the way she’s always so sure of herself and all her opinions, but,” I found my words rolling faster and faster down the slope of my agitation. “ I find myself hating her for having them, because she has always lived such a gilded life, and never had to fend for herself over anything, so how can she possibly be so sure that what she thinks about everything is right?”
I blushed and stared down at the threadbare Indian carpet. Then I looked up again.
“I suppose the truth is she’s just getting more annoying as she gets older. But I know, if I’m honest, that I must be as well.”
And he laughed suddenly, freely and openly, showing his good white North American teeth.
“We all are. Who isn’t? It’s perceptive and honest of you to see that so clearly. These things are just feelings. They are not important. You can hang onto them. Or you can let them go.”
“Well that’s easier said than done.”
“They are your feelings, you own them, and you can do with them what you will.”
I waited. Was that it?
“We none of us know each other’s reality,” he said. “You can’t know how the world seems through your friend’s eyes. And she can’t know how it seems to you. All we know is that all our realities are false, and that our challenge is to travel through them towards greater clarity.”
I glared at him through my glasses. I wasn’t sure I was getting what I wanted. He knew it and held onto my look. He swallowed and I could almost see him thinking.
“Sometimes, you know, it’s just hard. No-one wants to hear that. But it’s the truth. Our lives are difficult, and--” he hesitated “--our feelings always follow our fears.”
He watched me for another moment, then leaned in towards me, holding his robe back with one hand “If you are afraid, let yourself be afraid. Open to it. Sit with it, breathe through it, acknowledge it, and let it go.” He waited. I said nothing. “There is no shame in being afraid. None whatsoever. All of us are afraid, in our different ways. But it is only when we acknowledge that we have that fear that we can begin to let it go.”
Our eyes seemed super-glued together. I did not know how to look away, although I longed to. I felt embarrassed and invaded, as if he had just cracked open my chest with a surgical instrument and was now surveying the raw meat inside. I wondered, not for the first time, why I couldn’t just do things the easy way. Evensong on Sundays, and home to supper and bed.
But then, oh thank goodness, there was a rustling outside the door as the next Yogi arrived for his or her appointment. Anakolandata smiled and bowed low, his hands pressed together in front of him and I saw, from the way he presented me with the top of his shaven skull, that I had been dismissed.
There were ten minutes before the next session. I hurried into my coat and went out into the garden. The clouds sat like a lid overhead and the grass was soaking, but I badly needed some air and began to walk pointlessly, this way and that, my arms clutching my elbows, until the wretched gong sounded, low and insistent, and I went back into the meditation hall and sat down on my cushion and dragged my blanket around me. Anakolandata’s cushion at the front was still empty. When I saw him come walking past me, on his off-putting white legs, I shut my eyes and turned my head away.
Dimly I heard him clear his throat and begin to talk but I listened instead to crows outside and the breeze riffling the leaves of the trees. I thought I might even try for a snatched moment’s sleep before my body slumped sideways and jerked me awake. Anne, I was sure, slept through far more of these sessions that she would ever admit, with her chin down low on her chest as if in prayer.
But then, like a striking clock, I heard his voice say ‘fear’, and my brain seemed to jump and pulse at the word. I pulled myself straighter. Fear. There. He said it again, and this time my brain convulsed and writhed like a grub on a pin.
It was ridiculous.
I squeezed my eyelids hard shut, and the word vanished, and I felt sick and migraine-ish for a moment, and then that went away too, and I was left with a space that at first felt like relief, and then more as if something was beginning to gather itself up for another assault.
I wrestled to tether myself. Sometimes strange things like this happened when you sat for a long time with your own thoughts. I tried to picture myself arriving home again tomorrow, my hand stretching out with my key towards the door, but then the film of it speeded up, and my arm seemed to reach out over and over. And always, behind that door, was the same thing. An empty hallway. A silent living room. And then it began to happen. The sack of artichokes tore open and out they fell out into that emptiness and silence, and they were not artichokes at all, but cold, hard lumps of fear.
I feared the heavy burden doing my job, and feared retiring from it into nothing. I feared the silence of my flat as I put my key in the lock every evening, and the deep sorrow that gathered around me whenever I heard a child laugh or saw a baby wave an arm from its pram.
I feared all the old, old memories ingrained in my mind, my husband, all those years ago, laying his key down on the table in the hallway as he left. And myself going, cool and tight, into the kitchen and standing and eating a tomato by the open fridge.
I feared myself, the narrow bitterness that was entering my spirit, and the unending solitariness that I saw looming ahead.
On they went, tumbling out now without restraint. Fears of failure, and fears of regret. I thought I knew them all already, but I knew nothing. I wanted to shake my head, to shake them out of me, but now they were rolling together and pressing me down to a place I had never been before, to a place I knew I did not want to go.
And from that place it rose up to meet me, something so familiar yet so unnamed, coiling itself around me and wrapping itself so close that I realised it wasn’t something outside me at all, it was me. My own skin. You are loveless, it whispered into my ear. No-one loves you, and you don’t love anybody. Loveless is how you were, and how you are, and how you are always going to be.
Faintly, I heard the Tibetan bowl sound and everyone get slowly up from their cushions around me. But I was looking straight into the dreadful heart of no-love and could not move. And then it rose and engulfed me, and I began to weep at its unutterable bleakness, the tears sliding down behind my glasses and over my cheeks. I felt such sorrow and terror for that lonely woman standing by her fridge door with a tomato in her hand. Such pity for her pride and her loss and her unflinching control. What was life, if you couldn’t allow yourself to feel part of it? What meaning was there in anything if the lovely dance of life was not for you?
But things pass. They do.
I stared steadily at what had risen up inside me, and eventually the tide of it began to turn and -- I got bored. It was as simple as that. Even the darkest fear turns thin and shredded and starts to blow away if you look at it for long enough, and after a time I found my thoughts straying to the crows outside, and soup we would be having for supper, and the far better supper I would be having tomorrow night, when I went out to visit friends. And after a time – I have no idea how long -- I slowly opened my eyes, and it was as if onto a different world. The artichokes had gone, and my chest felt wonderfully open and free. A weak sun was coming in through the windows, striking the shoulder of the bronze Buddha at the front of the hall and lighting a vase of red dahlias and green leaves on the windowsill beyond. And I let my eyes rest on them, and felt calm and rinsed, as if after a long illness, and also oddly unbounded, as if I was somehow part of those beautiful dahlias and they were a part of me. Then I smiled to myself because I understood that this, too, was just a feeling, and would pass, as everything did, but even so there was no reason not to welcome it into my heart as a traveller would welcome a cold drink after the long, dry stretches of a desert.
Ahead of me was an empty floor of scattered blankets and cushions, but when I got up stiffly and turned to go I saw there was another figure still left in the hall, the girl with the pigtails, also stretching out and standing up at the back of the room. And when I saw her, I smiled at her, I just didn’t think not to, and she smiled back at me, a smile of such joy and radiance I could have hugged her as if she was a daughter, and very nearly did so, but then restrained myself and simply bowed and opened my hand to let her walk ahead me, out of the meditation hall and down the corridor towards the dining hall.
“Oh,” said Anne, in the car on the way back. “I thought he was marvellous, didn’t you? So simple and direct. I mean, they are simple, aren’t they, the basic ideas, but sometimes you forget, what with all the Fourfold this and the Eightfold that …But I found it very difficult, though, especially at first. Sometimes it’s like that. Did you see that girl taking a whole banana! Every mealtime. A whole banana! I became quite fixated on her. The little madam. A whole banana, when everyone else was just having a half!”
“What?” she said. “What’s so funny?”
“She was very young. I expect she just didn’t think.”
“Oh Celia,” Anne clapped her hands. “You are such a lovely person. Lovelier than I could ever be.”
“Oh, no I—“
“--and to have a friend like you!” she exclaimed. “I am so lucky. Who else would be even willing to come along with me? Everyone else thinks I’m quite batty.”
“I should thank you, for putting me onto it in the first place.”
“Oh phooey. You know me. I just dive in and then see what’s there.”
But as we sped on up the A303 she grew uncharacteristically quiet and reflective.
“You haven’t forgotten you need to drop me back at Julian and Eleanor’s?” she said, shortly, after a time.
We went on a few more miles and still she was silent.
I looked across at her. “Are you ok?”
“Yes, of course.”
She stared ahead.
“Yes I’m fine.”
But as we drove further the silence in the car seemed to multiply and grow.
I glanced across at her again and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Oh, well, you know--” she said after a moment, and shifted some more and worked her lips. “It’s nothing. It’s just Richard. I know he’ll be so difficult when I get back. He always is after I’ve been away like this. Men are such hard work, you know, once they pass sixty. They don’t know what they’re for any more, and they hate not having a purpose. You’re so lucky not to have to bother with any of that.”
I turned off the main road and began to negotiate the lanes again.
“But the food’s not as good,” I said. “There’s no-one to make any effort for.”
“Oh,” she cried, “just listen to me! What have I got to complain about? Why don’t you take the day off and come to the Callingtons with us? We’d love it if you did. Richard, especially. He always says you’re by far the most interesting friend that we’ve got.”
But I smiled and shook my head. “I can’t. I’ve got a really heavy day ahead.”
Although, in truth, even more than that, my flat, with its calm and its quiet, was calling me back.
I said that I’d drop her at the end of the driveway, and leaned over to give her a hug.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s only re-entry. Things’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
“I know,” she said, hugging me twice as hard back. “I do. Take no notice. I wouldn’t even mention it to anyone but you. And it’s nothing, really, you know. Nothing at all.”
But when I looked back in my mirror she was still standing there, not moving to go in -- a strangely gallant little figure, I suddenly thought, with her bag at her feet and her scarf at her neck and both hands waving high in the air.
And I gave her one last big wave in return, waggling my wrist violently so she would be sure to see it. Then I settled myself more comfortably into my driving seat, adjusted the heater, turned on Radio Three, and headed for home.