Big me. Little me
Your mind has
A flood of questions.
There is but one teacher
Who can answer them.
Who is the teacher?
Your silence-loving heart.
– Sri Chinmoy
This was the dream:
It’s the early hours of the morning.
The sound of the doorbell ringing wakes me from my alcohol-induced stupor.
I get out of bed, still in my clothes from the night before, make-up smeared on my face.
Over the full ashtrays and piles of dirty clothes, I step, past the fallout from a late night, drunken game of indoor cricket, played with an empty wine bottle and a tennis ball. Broken things litter the floor.
I open the front door.
The instructor from my meditation classes is standing there. He gives a polite Japanese bow.
He speaks softly and reverentially, “I’d like to introduce you to Sri Chinmoy.”
He gestures towards a tall, athletic-looking Indian man in shining blue robes.
Before I can say anything, the tall man strides past me into the flat.
Purposeful. A man on a mission.
“He’s come to clear up,” I think.
I turn round and look at the mess behind me.
He’s got his work cut out.
* * *
I got off the train in Berlin. No plans, no direction, nowhere to sleep that night. All I had was a Lonely Planet Guide and the firm conviction that it was time for my life to change.
As part of my degree course in Modern European Languages, I’d spent the previous eight months in the south of France with two of my fellow students. With very few assignments to do and the French government paying most of our rent, we’d had more money in our pockets and more time on our hands than we were used to. The wine was far too cheap. Although I’d spent some of the time productively – learning to ski, giving up smoking, volunteering for a homeless charity – the rest was a hazy blur and those things I did remember I was now trying to forget.
A friend had lent me Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, recommending it as a “good book.” In the retelling of the Buddha’s journey from Prince to Enlightened One, I came across the concept of reincarnation for the first time – being born again and again in different bodies, each lifetime taking us closer to the ultimate goal of spiritual realisation. For me it was more than a good book. It was a call to action, a call to start searching for life’s deeper meaning, to strive for something higher and more fulfilling than the ‘normal’ life had to offer. Why hadn’t this book had the same effect on my friends? Was I weird?
Soon enough I’d found accommodation and a part-time job in the kitchen of an Irish pub. At the market I bought a book about meditation and a cassette of Tibetan singing bowls. Back home, I lay on the floor and listened to the cassette. An hour later I woke up unsure whether I’d had a deep meditation or just an afternoon nap.
In the museum at Checkpoint Charlie I’d seen a display of some of Gandhi’s writings. In one he said that if you don’t know what to do with your life, try fasting for a day. This will take you inwards to a clearer mental state and help you find direction.
I decided to try it once a week. My kitchen shift finished with a pint of Guinness – it was free. Who says no to free Guinness? After that, I’d fast for 24 hours. There’s an island nature reserve called Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), a short ferry ride from Berlin. I used to go there on my fast days to walk slowly and commune with nature.
If I had to define what I was looking for, I thought, I’d call it a sense of oneness with all around me, a feeling of connectedness with all of nature and humanity.
One day, walking to work, my head full of my new spiritual ideas, I spotted a poster. It was stuck to a wall, slightly set back from the road. It showed an Indian man in purple robes, with his eyes closed, playing a stringed instrument I didn’t recognize. There were trees in the background. He looked as if he were in a kind of a trance. My immediate thought was, “He has what I’m looking for.” Somehow I could tell he’d achieved the elusive state of oneness with everything around him, of connectedness with all of nature and humanity that I myself had wished to attain. There was a timelessness about him, as if he belonged to the distant past, yet he was wearing a digital wristwatch. I was struck by this incongruity: he seemed so ancient, yet here he was, obviously living in the modern day world.
I gazed, mesmerised for a few minutes, and then looked at what was written underneath the picture. This man was giving a Peace Concert in Berlin. The only trouble was the Concert was in May 1992. It was now June 1993.
And I was late for work.
* * *
I returned to Edinburgh in September to complete my final year of university. For the past three years I’d done the minimum amount of study, devoting myself instead to alcohol, nightclubs and amateur dramatics. If I wanted to get my degree I’d have to work hard this year. At the same time I was beginning to see the limitations of the intellectual world. I sat in the university library – six floors packed with shelves and shelves of books – the collected knowledge of humanity. Was there even one book in this whole place that could show me what I was looking for? I’d spent most of my life developing my mind. Was I happy? Was I fulfilled? Books could only take me so far. If I wanted to go beyond the mind, I’d have to learn to meditate properly and that meant finding a class.
The first class I went to didn’t quite do it for me. Led by two women, we practised different techniques: walking round the room in silence, chanting, speaking in tongues, lying on the floor to release our primal screams. Somehow I knew this wasn’t what I was looking for. A final objection was the cost. Five pounds per class was a lot for a penniless student.
The next day in the lunch queue I was telling my flatmate I’d been to a meditation class. “Oh, did you go to that place next to Greyfriars Bobby?” (Our landmarks in those days were all pubs.) “You should try that one, it’s free. I think it’s called the Sri Chinmoy Centre.”
Later that week I saw a poster stuck to the noticeboard of the German Department. It showed a big square maze with a figure at the centre of it, seated in meditation. It was advertising a class given by the Sri Chinmoy Centre. I made a mental note of the time and location and duly showed up, only to find I’d gone to the wrong place. The class was being held at George IVth Bridge Library and I’d gone to George Square Library.
The enormous wave of disappointment which overcame me took me by surprise. On the face of it, this was just another class like all the other classes I attended on a daily basis. Why was this one so important to me? Fortunately, it seemed the Sri Chinmoy Centre was quite active, and I soon found another class I could go to.
About twelve of us sat on the floor round the edge of a blue-carpeted room, listening to a young man talk. He spoke about our existence as being like a huge mansion with many rooms. Most of the time we stay only in our mind-room. Meditation was a way of getting out of our mind-room and exploring all the other rooms we had inside us. This struck a deep chord with me, but by now I was impatient. I was already convinced of the benefits of meditation; I just wanted someone to show me how to do it.
After some relaxation, breathing and concentration exercises, the instructor asked us to look at a large framed black-and-white photograph that was hanging on the wall. He explained that this was a photograph of Sri Chinmoy’s face, and that it was taken when Sri Chinmoy had entered into a very high meditation. As such it represented an elevated state of consciousness in which the human personality was dissolved. It was called the Transcendental Picture. By meditating on it we could identify with that state and achieve a high meditation ourselves. This sounded like an unlikely story to me, but I was aware that I knew next to nothing about meditation, so I resolved not to rule anything out. I’d give it a try.
I relaxed and focused my eyes on the photograph. Almost immediately, extraordinary things started happening. As I looked at the face, the features began changing rapidly. I would see a baby, then the features would quickly change into those of an old man, then a young woman, then a small boy. The images came one after another. It was as if I were seeing a thousand different faces inside this one photograph – male, female, all ages, all the different races of the world, all of humanity in one simple photograph. Throughout this experience, my mind was telling me that what I was seeing was impossible, but in my heart I was feeling so much joy. Here was oneness. Here was connectedness. Here was what I’d been looking for, for such a long time.
The class was early in the evening, so there was time to go for a swim afterwards. Every time I closed my eyes to go underwater I could see the Transcendental Picture as if imprinted on my eyelids. Rather than scaring me, this reassured me. Here, I felt, was someone who was on my side, who’d be a very dear friend to me for as long as I wanted him to be.
That should have been the end, a happy ever after, but as it was my mind needed a lot more convincing. Was this the right path for me? Was it safe even? Everyone knew groups like these only wanted to take your money and force you to join a harem. My friends urged me to be wary.
After one of the meditation classes another attendee voiced similar doubts. “You have to listen to your heart,” replied the instructor. “If this kind of meditation gives you joy and a sense of peace, it’s probably right for you. If it doesn’t, you should look for another meditation practice.” Instantly this put my fears to rest. Surely, if they wanted to exploit me, they wouldn’t be telling me to listen to my heart! Right now my heart was shouting with joy and I ran all the way home.
The instructor told us that it was easier to meditate in a group than alone, because together we created a certain kind of spiritual energy which helped us. It definitely felt to me like this was true. My scientist friends disagreed. “That’s nonsense. You can’t create energy through meditation.”
I sat on the bus trying to puzzle it out. “Do you know how electricity works?” asked a voice inside me. “Do you need to know how it works to use it and get benefits from it? Do you know how this bus works? Do you need to know how the bus works to ride it and let it take you home?”
This was the first time I clearly saw the difference between big me and little me. Big me was my heart and soul, my deeper self, which wanted to love and embrace the world, the part of myself I’d been ignoring up till now. Little me was my limiting mind, which wanted to categorize and put things in boxes. It didn’t want to expand. It was all too easy to listen to little me when what big me was saying was challenging and uncomfortable. The instructor was advocating getting up at six o’clock in the morning to meditate, running to keep the body fit and giving up alcohol altogether. Big me was ready and willing. Little me was having a tantrum and wanted to give up.
In spite of this conflict, I always felt an underlying certainty which I couldn’t ignore. It was there when I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night. “If you give up now, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.” It seemed if I stuck with it, I’d have a shot at happiness, peace, purpose and complete, total fulfilment. If I quit, I’d live a half-life, always wondering what could have been, what I could have become.
I imagined living the rest of my life in one small room, never having explored all the other rooms in my mansion. I started dreaming that I saw doors in my house that I’d not noticed before. They opened onto vast rooms, sometimes whole wings. They were dusty and unused, sometimes filled with outdated or broken furniture, but, as estate agents put it, they had potential.
In one of the classes the instructor told us that Sri Chinmoy had just completed one million bird drawings. “What a waste of time, drawing one million of the same thing!” said left-brained, little me, fresh out of the debating room. But as I walked out of the front door, my heart exploded with joy. “He’s drawn ONE MILLION BIRDS!” I shouted with delight at no one in particular and once again ran all the way home.
My exams were getting closer. Every Tuesday I would sit in the library and think to myself, “I’m not going to meditation tonight. I have to study.” As eight o’clock approached, I would tell myself again, “I’m really not going to meditation tonight. I really do have to study.” At five to eight I would throw my pen down and run down the stairs, out of the library and across the university grounds. I’d arrive at the class late and out of breath but with joy in my heart.
The instructor told me that ideally I would meet Sri Chinmoy in person at this stage of my involvement, but as that wasn’t possible – he lived in New York – I could send Sri Chinmoy a photo of myself and he would meditate on it and connect with my soul. The instructor was leaving for New York in a few days’ time, and if I dropped off my photo at the Sri Chinmoy Centre before then, he could take it with him.
More nonsense. I definitely wasn’t going to do that. Nonetheless, on the day the instructor was due to leave, I found myself running to the photo booth in the student union, cutting a photo of a panting, slightly surprised girl with messy hair off from a strip of four, putting it in an envelope and posting it through the Centre letterbox. As I walked home I looked at the three remaining photos. I could barely recognise myself. I was smiling.
Two weeks later, my flatmates and I had a party. Around two in the morning we were playing cricket in the hallway with an empty wine bottle and a tennis ball. I fell asleep in my clothes. That night I had a dream....
* * *
Alcohol was a big hurdle for me. University social life revolved around beer. I’d seen too many brilliant people destroy themselves with drink though, and secretly, I’d wanted to stop for a long time. Now I was determined to give it a try. I wrote on a piece of paper: ‘Wendy Neve has given up alcohol 2/8/94’ and stuck it on my mirror.
“Why are you drinking water? Just have a half. Go on, just have a half,” my friends chorused.
“Why are you drinking halves? Have a pint, what’s wrong with you?” Soon the piece of paper looked like this:
Wendy Neve has given up alcohol 2/8/94
Eventually, there were no more crossings out. I took the piece of paper down. I didn’t drink anymore.
Running was the next hurdle. I’d never been athletic. Shorter and weedier than my classmates, I’d always been picked last for teams and had spent much of my school-life devising ingenious ways to get out of Games. Still, I could see the sense in it. Meditation was keeping the inner me healthy; running would do the same for the outer me. So I put on my clubbing trainers and headed for Edinburgh’s Peace Mile. Twice I sprinted round it at breakneck speed, collapsing at the end in a nauseous heap, my muscles on fire.
It hadn’t occurred to me I could just jog.
By now I was meditating when I woke up every morning. Six o’clock was still far too early for me, and I only managed it when I’d just got home from a long night out. My mind was becoming clearer and my heart lighter. In the meditation classes, we practised singing some of the thousands of songs Sri Chinmoy had composed. Some were slow and soulful; others light and joyful – they made me smile; still others were dynamic and energising. I sang a few of them at home every morning after I meditated. They brightened my day. It didn’t bother me so much when my flatmates drank all the milk and left me none for my morning cup of tea.
One day as I was walking home from the shops, a woman smiled at me; a little further along another woman smiled at me, then an old man, then a teenager, then some children. At first I enjoyed it but as it continued it started to unsettle me. This wasn’t normal. Was there something wrong with me? Had I put my clothes on back to front? Was there something stuck to my face? Maybe they were all laughing at me. By the time I got home I was completely freaked out. Dropping my shopping in the hallway, I slumped against the wall. On the wall opposite, at head height, was a mirror. I caught sight of my reflection – I was smiling the biggest ear-to-ear grin I’d ever seen on myself. That explained it, I supposed.
Later, I was hanging out my laundry.
“What’s that?” asked my flatmate.
“It’s a sari. We wear them for meditation. Sri Chinmoy says it helps to wear something specific you don’t wear for anything else.”
“Not a very nice one is it?” He was right. It was bright orange with big pink, yellow and green flowers printed all over it. It looked like a pair of curtains from the seventies.
Why did I like it so much?
Sri Chinmoy had several requirements for his students. I’d been a vegetarian since I was sixteen and I’d quit smoking the previous year. Alcohol was now taken care of, and I hadn’t even wanted to do drugs for quite a few months. Now it turned out that relationships were also on the banned list. If you were single he expected you to stay that way. No more boyfriends.
“OK, well here’s the perfect excuse to give up,” I thought. “It’s ridiculous to expect people to live like monks in today’s world. Besides, it’s impossible, surely.” I’d quit this meditation lark straightaway and find something else to do with my life. They’d pushed me too far with this one. As I walked home, I expected to feel relieved, as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Instead I was hit by another enormous wave of disappointment. I’d got so much out of this. I’d cleaned up my life and I was happier and healthier than I’d ever been. Was I really ready to abandon it now? Why did I get the impression I’d be throwing away something precious, irreplaceable even?
If I were honest with myself, wasn’t I a bit fed up with the whole relationship game anyway? It had always felt a bit like acting. I felt like I was playing the role of so-and-so’s girlfriend: lines to be learned and recited at the appropriate moments, particular behaviours to be adopted in particular situations, codes of conduct to be adhered to. I’d seen so many of my friends morph into their boyfriends’ counterparts – taking on his likes and dislikes, his turns of phrase, even his mannerisms sometimes. Wouldn’t it be nice to live just for myself for a while? To find out who I really was? Did I really like Jimi Hendrix’s music? Iain Banks’ novels? Mexican food?
I’d finished my degree by now. Most of my university friends had moved away, which had made adjusting to my new lifestyle a little easier. I was working temporarily in a vegetarian restaurant and planning to travel to Egypt in the autumn to study to become an English teacher (the Cairo teaching course was half the price of the UK one and the qualification was the same). I’d already had the inoculations I needed and arranged to stay with a friend of a friend who had a flat there. Maybe I could postpone it for a year? I could give the spiritual life a try. Just for a year. If it worked out, well and good. If not, I’d just pick up where I left off, but with a deeper sense of who I really was. I made my decision.
It was now that I felt relieved, as if a heavy weight had finally been lifted from my shoulders.
* * *
In October 1994 I heard that Sri Chinmoy would be going to Rome to meet with Mother Teresa. I would finally be able to see him in the flesh. A group of his students decided to hire a bus to drive us there. We met at Kings Cross Station – a disparate bunch: male, female, young, old, different races. One young woman, about my age, greeted me with, “Welcome to your first nightmare disciple trip.” The route took us across the Channel and through France and Germany. There was plenty of time for singing, meditation, joking and telling stories about life with Sri Chinmoy, stories which filled me with wonder and anticipation. They seemed to me like an alien race; they spoke a different language. They didn’t say they didn’t like someone, they said they didn’t “feel much oneness” with them; they were never in a bad mood, instead they were in a “low consciousness.” Nonetheless I couldn’t help feeling at home with them, comfortable and safe.
When we arrived at the campsite in Rome where we were to stay for the night, I had a St. Peter moment. As I watched the others play frisbee, one of the campsite workers, who happened to be English, came up to me. He inquired, “Are you with that bunch of weirdos?”
“Not really,” I replied. “I just came along for the ride.” Later, as one of the girls helped me put on a sari before the function with Sri Chinmoy, my conscience pricked. This bunch of weirdos had been kind to me. I saw sincerity in them. They were genuinely trying to improve themselves and make the world a better place.
I was far from relaxed about seeing Sri Chinmoy for the first time. My questioning mind was resisting with all its might, shouting louder than ever, making me confused and nervous. When we arrived at the function hall where we were to meet with Sri Chinmoy that evening, I saw him standing on the stage, meditating with folded hands. I tried to feel my heart, but it was as if it were totally blocked, drowned out by the commotion going on in my head. Around me were several hundred women in saris and men in white. They all seemed to know each other. I felt completely out of place, a square peg in a round hole. Sri Chinmoy was talking now and I tried to listen but I couldn’t hear anything. All I could feel was the pain in my head.
I gave up and picked up a book someone had left on the chair next to me. It was a book of talks Sri Chinmoy had given to seekers. I opened it at a random page, where Sri Chinmoy was saying that if any of them wanted to become his disciples they could send him an application. If he was the right teacher for them, he would accept them. If not, he would tell them to look elsewhere. My chaotic mind snatched this information and turned it on its head: I’d never applied to be a disciple. Sure, I’d sent him a photo six months ago but that was something different – something to do with contacting my soul. If I’d never applied then I’d never been accepted. If I’d never been accepted then I’d been rejected. If I’d been rejected then I wasn’t good enough, I was useless, unworthy, unlovable. All my insecurities came to the fore and I spiralled downwards. I slumped in my chair and let the dark cloud of self-created misery envelop me.
All of a sudden I heard Sri Chinmoy’s voice. “I have accepted you,” he said in loud, clear tones! Those were the first words I’d understood all night. “I have accepted you and you have accepted me,” he continued. “Now we must prove ourselves to each other, prove that we are worthy of our mutual acceptance.”
Instantly the cloud of misery dispersed.
* * *
I stood on the ferry’s deck and gazed at the sunlight reflected on the water below, my heart lit with hope. Silently I spoke to Sri Chinmoy. I thanked him for accepting me and promised to do my best to prove myself worthy of him. As England’s shores came into view I knew that this time it was a new me coming home.
At Dover we compared passport photos on the bus. Mine had been taken a year previously. “It doesn’t look like you,” said one of the others. “Now you’ve got a disciple consciousness.”
* * *
I ended the year in Cambridge with a group of Sri Chinmoy’s disciples who’d got together to meditate for the New Year. The meditation room was decorated with paper snowflakes. Orange-blossom incense filled the air. We sang Sri Chinmoy’s song, ‘Vishnu Debata’ – O my beloved Lord Vishnu. In the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the preserver, the one who sustains us. My heart was full of gratitude, my happiness complete. Tears fell.
As I left the meditation room I saw a poster on the wall that I hadn’t noticed before. It showed an Indian man in purple robes, playing a stringed instrument with his eyes closed. There were trees in the background.
A memory stirred.