It was what my mother used to call a dog day – one of those steamy, cloudy, still days of August when nothing much changes. I was walking to the copse at the end of Clapham Common and, when I entered it, could see it hadn’t altered much since I was last there. Two men with bicycles were waiting patiently for their lovers, one beside a bench and the other near a battered sign. Further on was a blunt looking Scotty dog, busy and alert amongst the undergrowth. There was nothing else remarkable except for the stillness of the foliage, all noise of the surrounding roads dimmed by the moist atmosphere and lack of breeze. I stood quite still, concentrated and enchanted, flashing back down the years to my childhood.
Occasionally, during a quiet school holiday, my mother would say, ‘Let’s go out in the car…’ She and I would set off, full of expectation and enthusiasm, and after meandering around for a while, often seemed to end up down a deep track in a wood. There, she’d turn off the engine, we’d wind down the windows, and go very quiet, smelling the bracken, listening to the invisible birds high up in the trees, watching the sunlight change amongst the undergrowth. It was always a magical moment, filled with joy. Eventually, she’d sigh and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? It’s so primitive…’
What she meant, I think, was the way you can sometimes feel fully alive when you go quiet and really focus on where you are - often helped by being completely still, in a place of natural beauty.
This is all in my mind at the moment because of the recent visit to London by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He gave a speech at the Hammersmith Apollo a couple of weeks ago, and some of us went to hear him from the office. He was as inspiring and as extraordinary as ever, demonstrating what real concentration is all about in the way he picked up a glass of water to drink, in the way he spoke for an hour without notes (though he is in his eighties), and in the clarity of mind he used in answering the questions, his face alight. But what I haven’t been able to forget was the way, when he finished speaking, he just left. Whilst others around him on the stage began to move and reorganise for the next part of the evening, Thich Nhat Hanh simply stood up, turned to face the backdrop, and slipped away. There was no bow to the audience, no pause for applause. Nothing. The contrast between him and all the rock bands, mediums, orators and dancers who have filled Hammersmith Apollo before him, was enormous.
That evening I started re-reading his seminal book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I hadn’t forgotten how practical and helpful is his advice about performing everyday tasks with mindfulness. He makes it all seem so simple. Perhaps it really is. But I had forgotten how very profound are his instructions ‘so we can live each minute of life’. At some point he says: ‘If we’re really engaged in mindfulness…then we will consider each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts like a flower, enabling us to enter the world of reality.’
Perhaps that’s what my mother and I were really doing, deep inside that wood, without realising it – getting a dose of reality by fully focusing on where we were. And what I caught a glimpse of once again on Clapham Common last Saturday.
Judith Kendra - Rider Publishing Director