Friday, 29 May 2015

(....till I end my song)


         The School of Philosophy used to tell us that it is only when her mother dies that a woman comes fully into her own.

         My mother had gone and I was free at last.  I had done my duty and looked after her until she died.

         There is a passage in one of the Hindu Scriptures  * which talks about “a hundred years of doing one’s duty.”   I had done my duty    -     it had sometimes felt like a hundred years.

         There is no doubt that I had a deep, deep love for my mother.   After all, I was the fruit of her womb and the flesh of her flesh.  It was a love that transcended our superficial differences and personality problems.        I know that now.

         I was forty six years old and I was free.  Free to live my own life and, above all, free to follow the spiritual path which had opened up before me.

         All this will be revealed in the sequel to this book. 

*     Synchronicity led me to this quote from the Isa Upanishad.  It begins:
“Whatever lives is full of the Lord.  Claim nothing;   enjoy, do not covet His property.  Then hope for a hundred years of doing your duty.”

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Monday, 13 April 2015

(till I end my song ....)


Whenever I entered the gates of the Villa San Girolamo an immediate sense of peace fell over me.  A long avenue, bordered with shrubs and flowers, led up to the front door.  Behind the villa rose an old orchard in terraced steps, and by the side of the house at the front there was a pathway along which the nuns used to walk back and forth, praying and telling their beads.  In earlier times hermits had occupied the cellars.  There was a pervading atmosphere of peace and beauty.

My mother had spent six weeks here, most of them in bed.  Now she was up and well enough to take her meals in the dining room.  There was one long central table where we all sat, with small tables round the sides mainly occupied by the permanent residents, both men and women. Visitors came from all over the world, so one might be sitting next to a Swedish couple, or someone from Ireland, America or England.  It was very international.  Priests often came from Rome to stay there, to relax and have a rest from their duties.

A very nice young priest sat next to my mother and made a point of chatting to her.  My mother was always very interested in politics and they were soon in animated conversation.  I was very grateful to him and glad to see my mother in such a lively mood.

There was just one day left before we were due to return to Brussels.  My mother was still making her own clothes and she asked me to find some material for her in Florence to go with a skirt she was making, which was a dove grey velvet.  I found a dark grey chiffon material which I thought would suit.  To my relief, my mother seemed pleased with it. 

On our last evening I took my mother to bed, gave her a bath, soaping her breasts and putting talcum powder on them afterwards.  She seemed content and at peace.  At one point she said:

 “I wonder what it would be like to die?”  I made no comment. 

As I was leaving she looked at me, smiling, and said:

“I’m looking forward to going home.”

I felt happy at that, and went to bed and to sleep.

The following morning, I was getting up and half dressed, when there was a knock at my door.

“Daphne, come down quickly.”
It was one of the nuns.

I hurriedly finished dressing and went down to my mother’s room.  My mother was lying in her bed.  She was already dead, her face at a slightly crooked angle after the stroke.

Shock affects you in different ways.  Everything seemed unreal.  Other people seemed to be bustling around.  I was in a frozen space – no feeling – nothing.  I was led away and went up to my room.  But I went back to my mother’s room and sat   -  as if by sitting there I could bring her back.

Sister Angela, the Mother Superior, took me in hand.  She was a gentle, soft spoken Irish woman, easy to be with.  I wanted my mother to be buried in Italy, no reason to take her back to Brussels.  We went down to Florence to see if she could be buried in the English cemetery there, but were told it was full.  She could be buried in the cemetery at Fiesole though, and Sister Angela made all the arrangements.

There was a short service at the Villa, with just the priest, two sisters and myself.  I saw my mother one last time, lying in the coffin.  In death her face looked stern. She had not had an easy life.   I bent to kiss her forehead and sobbed briefly.  We were driven up to the cemetery, which lay on a hillside above Fiesole.  Like all Italian cemeteries, the gravestones were ornate, with photographs and statuary and many flowers. A white wall, with still more burial urns set into it and vases on brackets for flowers, enclosed the cemetery.  It was very pretty, colorful, and I liked the thought of my mother having her final resting place there.

At some point I heard a little voice in my head which said:  ‘I’m glad.’  I put that thought quickly away.

I intended to stay on for a few days.  At some point a strange thing happened.  I felt my mother inside me, I felt her essence, she felt closer to me than she ever had in life, I felt loved and protected.  I felt very calm and again, not quite in the real world.

I rang Brussels, hoping to speak to Mrs. Schoup and I got Mr. Schoup.

“Good heavens!” he said when I gave him my news.  This did not seem like an adequate response, but I asked him if he would let my boss know.

I wrote letters to everyone I could think of to let them know of my mother’s death.  Once I had done that there seemed no point in staying on longer and I returned to Brussels. As soon as I arrived in Brussels I went back to work.  About a week had elapsed since my mother’s death.

I was still being sustained by the sense of my mother’s presence inside me.  Everyone was very kind to me.  I think they were surprised to find me so calm.  I remember saying to my boss:

“Tout le mal est passé et il n’y a que le bien qui reste.”

“Oh, que c’est beau”, he replied.  *

I returned to the School.  There was an evening event and we had to wear long dresses.  Mrs. Schoup came up to me.

“You look wonderful.”

I was perturbed by her comment.  I told her of the little thought which I had had.

“I shouldn’t worry about it” she said.

Slowly the feeling of my mother’s presence began to leave me and after about two weeks it was gone altogether.

* All the bad has gone and only the good remains
  Oh, that is beautiful

Monday, 23 March 2015

(till I end my song)

                                                            MOVING ON

         There were still moments when I fell into depression.  Old familiar mind patterns, such as:   ‘I have no place in the sun’, ‘I don’t belong anywhere’, would draw me in a spiraling downward movement into a deep, black pit.  I would have thoughts of suicide and contemplate ending it all by putting my head in the gas oven.  Fortunately, another voiceless part of me recognized these thoughts as unreal, fuelled by self pity.

         On the other hand I began to experience moments of pure joy, and this was before I had begun to meditate.  I remember walking along the Avenue Armand Huysmans and seeing everything with intense clarity, the shapes of the buildings, the colours of the sky, the trees, the stone, and I remember thinking:  ‘this must be how artists see.’

         “Only connect”  said T.S. Eliot.

         Another time I was walking along the street, it was early evening, the air was still, and I heard the liquid notes from a piano pouring through an open window.  Again, that feeling of joy, a moment of connection, I was one with the music  -  one with the universe.

         I was still in touch with my old friend Katie.  She wrote to say she was coming to stay with a friend in Brussels and would like to see me.  Late one evening, long after midnight when I was in bed, the doorbell rang.  I knew it was Katie and I felt angry, I remembered Paris, I was not going to let her in.  The bell rang again a couple of times and then it stopped.

         The next morning Katie rang again, nothing was said about the previous evening, and I invited her to come and have coffee.  It was Saturday morning, my mother was having a lie-in, and we sat in the kitchen with our coffee.  I was still feeling a bit cross.  Katie began confiding in me, she started telling me about her father and how he had abused her when she was a child.  I felt shocked to the core, I immediately forgave her everything.

         “Let’s go shopping” said Katie.  We left my mother in bed and went downtown.  Katie wanted a swimsuit, so we went into a department store and found the right floor for swimwear.  I watched, half embarrassed, half amused, as Katie walked around semi-naked trying on various costumes. Though in her sixties, she still had a very good figure.

         We drove back home, relaxed and happy after our shopping expedition.  We started to sing a song.  It was True Love from the film with Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.  The words were so apt.  I remember the feeling of pure happiness which flooded over me as we sang.  A memory of pure joy, love, friendship.

         Time went on.  My mother was still very alert, she was still shopping and cooking the meals, but she started to become very suspicious.  She complained about our cleaning lady and accused her of stealing.  I knew this was not true, but my mother then turned against this very kind, honest woman and I was obliged, sadly, to dismiss her.

         One Friday I went into work as usual.  When I came home I found my mother still in bed.  Was she not well?

         “Where have you been?” she asked, crossly.  “Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?”

         “But Mummy, I’ve been to work, of course.’

         “But it’s Saturday today.”

         The penny dropped.  “No, Mummy, it’s Friday.”

         I felt very upset that she thought I would go off and leave her alone all day.

         I shall move swiftly on over the next few years.

  We had to move again and I found another nice apartment, on the ground floor with a large garden, still very central.  Brussels was wonderful in that way.

 We did a lot of travelling:   we visited Switzerland, France and Spain;  we visited Italy, Rome and Florence. My mother was never happier than when she was travelling, she still disliked Brussels.  On one of our trips we stayed in a beautiful ‘pensione’ in Fiesole, not far from Florence.  The building was an old Medici villa and the ‘pensione’ was run by nuns, called the Blue Sisters.  They were a nursing order and looked after a number of  elderly residents, as well as paying guests. Set on a hillside, the situation was beautiful, with a view onto Florence in the distance and the golden roof of the Duomo.

It was 1976 and early in the year my mother said she felt she would like to spend part of the winter in Fiesole, and get away from Brussels for a while.  I was quite happy for her to do this, and arranged for her to stay at the Villa San Girolamo during February and the month of  March.  We flew to Florence and took a taxi up to Fiesole.  I stayed the night and the following day took the bus down to Florence.  As I waved to my mother from the bus, she seemed sad and lonely.  I felt sad myself, to be leaving her like this.  I loved my mother, but we did not have an easy relationship.  She had come to depend on me so much, and I always felt guilty about relishing my moments of freedom when I was away from her.

I heard from the nuns that my mother had caught ‘flu.  I wrote to her cheerful letters about all my activities, mainly to do with the School, and rang from time to time.  She was being very well looked after by the nuns but it was a shame she was having to spend all her time in bed.

Finally, around the middle of March, I heard from the nuns that my mother was being moved to a room on the ground floor.  They felt she was well enough to return home.  I flew down to Florence again and joined my mother at the Villa.  I found her up, but looking quite frail.  She was now 87 years old.  I realized that she had been much more sick than I had been told.  The doctor came to examine her and he declared her well enough to travel back to Brussels.  I went ahead and made all the arrangements, including the use of a wheelchair.

Monday, 16 March 2015

(till I end my song ....)


         Many people left the School when meditation was introduced.  Some thought it was a lot of mumbo-jumbo, others disapproved of having to pay money for it, although what we were being offered was priceless.

         The initiation ceremony was conducted by an organization known as the Study Society, which existed alongside the School of Philosophy in London at that time and still does.  Its aim was to propagate the knowledge and practice of  meditation and was, in fact, based on transcendental meditation, known as TM, which had been brought to the West in the sixties and popularized by the Beatles and other celebrities.

         Nowadays meditation is known worldwide and has become a global phenomenon.  Strangely enough, apart from the Catholics, it is the Christian Church which has resisted it, being still very suspicious of anything coming from the East, which includes yoga.  The old adage ‘East is East and West is West and ne’er the twain shall meet’ still holds, although this attitude is slowly crumbling, especially on the part of Roman Catholic theologians.

         There are many, many different ways to meditate these days, given to us by Buddhist and Zen teachers, Hindu teachers and other spiritual leaders, which can be based on the breath or visualization, or again a word or ‘mantra’.

         I had not been conditioned by Christian teachings and so I embraced this form of meditation fully, and the ceremony seemed to me beautiful and symbolic.  I still practice and use the same ‘mantra’ today.

 I was later to find my own way back to the Church and Christ’s teachings.

         We were told to meditate twice a day, preferably at dawn and dusk, the most auspicious times, for twenty minutes.  At first we were regularly supervised by a tutor  until we were finally able to continue on our own.

         I had several experiences, some bad, some good, during the early stages of meditation.  One morning I woke up early around 4 am.  I went into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea.  I sat on the kitchen stool, sipping my tea, listening to a solitary bird singing its sweet song.  The next moment I was that bird, or the bird was me, we were one.  It is difficult to describe, but you could call it bliss.

         There were bad experiences, moments when I woke up in terror, others when I seemed to expand in size and felt myself to be huge, which made me think of Alice in Wonderland.  I would see newspapers with huge printed headlines and get an apocalyptic feeling of the end of the world.  Sometimes my mind would race and I seemed to be having the most brilliant insights, which reminded me of the time when I had my nervous breakdown.  I even suspected that Mrs Schoup was spiking our coffee with LSD, though I kept this idea to myself.

         On another occasion I was in NATO waiting to donate blood.  We were in a large room, there were nurses and doctors, beds for the donors.  I was standing in line, thinking of nothing, when suddenly I saw rays of light streaming from different people, some were quite small, others larger.  I was particularly interested to see rays about a foot long around a small Turkish handyman, who did odd jobs around NATO.  I always looked at him with great respect after that!

         One morning I was walking along a corridor in NATO to go to the bar, thinking of nothing, when I experienced a kind of shift in the time zone.  It seemed to me as though I was in a dance, and everyone else was too, almost as though we were being pulled on strings in a web of infinite complexity, each of us at the exact point where we were meant to be at that moment.  And then I was myself again, walking along the corridor for my coffee.

         Shortly afterwards,  these experiences ceased and I was back in my own skin again, leading my normal life.  It was as though a momentary shift had occurred in my brain and I had been taken into a different level of consciousness.

         My mother was not at all happy with this new interest which seemed to be consuming me.  She would have preferred something more normal, such as  a boyfriend.  At times I think she was even jealous of Mrs. Schoup, and unfortunately this began to create a rift between us.


Thursday, 12 March 2015

(till I end my song ....)


         One of the ideas new to me in our philosophy class was that of  ‘indifferent action.’  This was not to be taken in the usual sense of the word;  it was more like detachment, meaning that there should be no like or dislike in the action.  One did the action because it was there to be done and all action was in service to the Absolute.

         I decided to put this idea into practice in my work in the office.  I still had a strong dislike of typing, even more so of financial tables.  I  began to notice that the dislike was gradually disappearing and that my typing was even improving.  I decided to apply this to the whole of my working life and found that I was becoming much happier in the office.  This was to have an interesting result later on.

         I was given other duties in the School.  I was asked to come in on a Saturday morning to clean the house.  Cleaning was another of my dislikes, but I did it willingly.  Cleaning indifferently was quite different from cleaning at home.  One of my other tasks was to arrange the flowers in the hallway and the rooms, and this I found very enjoyable.

         I had been in the School for two years when we were told that if we wanted to continue, we would have to learn meditation and that this would become part of our practice.

         I had never heard of meditation.  I did not want to leave and so I read up all I could find about it. My mind was made up for me by hearing a talk by Tom Chapman, who came to talk about it in the School.  Tom was a liaison officer between industry and the Church and he had links with the School.  A devout Christian, he had risen through the ranks from being a lad on the shop floor to the position he now held.  Small and stocky, with a scar running across his cheek from a punch-up, he was warm and friendly.  For him the Christian message spelt 'LOVE' pure and simple.  He spoke simply and sincerely about what meditation meant for him.  He convinced me that this was something I wanted to do.

         We were told that before learning how to meditate we would have to go through an initiation ceremony, and we were asked to bring a white handkerchief, a piece of fruit and a sum of money with us.  The day arrived.

         I was struck by the silence the moment I came through the door of the School.  There were beautiful flowers everywhere, in the hallway and on the landings, as well as people sitting upright and still.  I felt slightly overawed.  I crept in like a mouse, wearing the long skirt I had been asked to put on.  We sat waiting, in the silence.

         At last my turn came.  I was led upstairs to the initiation room.  I handed over my offerings.  I had to sit on a chair facing the initiator.  He spoke some beautiful words which I no longer remember.  I was then asked to close my eyes and to repeat in my mind the single syllable word which was given to me.  As I repeated the word I felt my mind becoming still and empty.    It was over.

         I was led out of the room and down the stairs.  As I went down I started to sob, my arm was held and I was gently led into another room.  Another helper sat me down, offered me a hanky and placed her hands on my knees as I sat sobbing.  When my tears had subsided, I was given a few more instructions and then taken into yet another room where I was given a cup of tea.

         So the day of my initiation came to an end.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

(till I end my song ....)

                                                THE SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY

         Although we were now fairly financially comfortable, this did nothing to alleviate my inner problems, my lack of self confidence and my shyness. I did have one or two friends with whom I went out, but there was no-one with whom I could share on anything other than a superficial level.  Parties were torture to me and so I avoided them.  I would read books purporting to overcome shyness, without success.  And I had recurring periods of depression, which usually came in the autumn.

         The huge range of self help books that we have now did not exist in those days, or certainly not in Brussels.  So it was with great interest that I saw an advertisement in the Brussels Bulletin, an English language magazine, for the School of Philosophy.  Drawing upon the teachings of all the world philosophies, it claimed that it could help you with your life’s problems.

         I did not hesitate and in September 1970 I went to my first class at the School of Philosophy.  Along with several others, I sat waiting expectantly.  The first thing we were told was that we were all sound asleep and that we needed to wake up.  I was introduced to ideas which were completely new to me, but which immediately aroused my interest. I felt I had had occasional glimpses of them in some of the books I had read.  These ideas were based on the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdieff, an esoteric spiritual teacher of Armenian Caucasian extraction, who lived in the early part of the twentieth century.

         By the end of the first term, through an entirely logical process, I was led to believe in the existence of a Creator.  The Gurdieff teachings were replaced by the teachings of an Indian holy man, the Shankaracharya of the North, who had left his post in order to devote himself to teaching the School.

         We were taught about the Hindu concept of the Self, which is not born and never dies, but is eternal.  This divine Self is in all of us.  This idea was a revelation to me and I believed it implicitly.  My whole view of myself began to change.

         We were given exercises on self observation, watching our thoughts whilst carrying out mundane tasks.  I began to notice how my thoughts were totally negative and how I constantly dug a hole for myself in the ground.  I was my own worst enemy!

         We were taught to sit still in the class, simply being aware of our bodies on the chair, aware of the sights and sounds around us, without thought.  We were asked to practice this exercise at home, extending the time to ten minutes, and to see what effect it had on our day.  We were also asked to pause between activities, even just a few seconds, so as not to carry on the energy from one activity into the next.

         We were told not to accept anything we heard in the class as the truth, but to verify it from our own experience.

         Another very interesting Hindu concept was that of the energies, which were called ‘tamas’, ‘rajas’ and ‘sattva’, the forces by which we were governed.  In the simplest terms, ‘tamas’ could be described as inaction, ‘rajas’ as action and ‘sattva’ as the balance between the two. 

         ‘Tamas’ could range from anything such as sleep, to sloth, inertia and torpor, whilst ‘rajas’ could range from normal activity up to rage, violence and destruction.  ‘Sattva’ was a state of serenity, of calm and balance.  I saw a beautiful description of it once as riding on the back of a large bird, seated between the two wings.  Too much ‘tamas’ could lead to ‘rajas’, whilst an excess of ‘rajas’ would induce ‘tamas.’

         It became an interesting exercise to try and observe these states within oneself.

         The classes were held in a private house on the Avenue de la Couronne, a long, broad, straight avenue which led into the centre of Brussels.  It was owned by the head of the School and his wife, who lived there and took the classes.  Mr. Schoup, pronounced scoop!, was a well known Dutch journalist, and his wife, who came from Scotland, was also a journalist.

         These classes became the highlight of my week and I would speed down the Avenue de la Couronne as though I were going on a date!  At the end of the first term we were asked to volunteer for a second evening, either to help with preparing and serving coffee in the break, or preparing the lecture room and sitting in on the class to act as a secretary.

         There were three forms of service we were told:  service of the Absolute, service for others and service for ourselves.  I was a willing volunteer and so on a second evening I was able to sit in a class and hear the teaching all over again.

         I also found a confidante in Mrs Schoup, as we were able to ask for help and have an individual interview.  Thus I came to see her regularly and would pour out my life story and all my troubles to her.  She would sit very still, listening, occasionally making a comment. It was very much like a form of therapy, though I did not realize it.

         My mother was bewildered by this new found interest of mine and somewhat suspicious.  After all, it was not like a man or a religion, which she might have been able to accept. It was not something I could share with her or explain, as I knew she would not understand.  This was something which touched me at a very deep level, at the level of my soul, and which I found intellectually and emotionally satisfying.  I think, subconsciously, my mother saw it as a threat, as something which might take me away from her.