When I was about seven years old, my father told me one of the stories he likes to tell now and again – there are several, and on occasion we remind him we’ve heard the stories before, but this particular one is about the English economist John Maynard Keynes. It goes like this: one evening Keynes and his wife, the Russian ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, were sitting by the fire gazing into the flames. Keynes enquired of his wife, “What are you thinking about darling?” To which she replied absentmindedly, as if emerging from a reverie, “Oh nothing.” Keynes in turn is said to have responded, “I wish I could!”
I not sure why this story should have impressed my seven year-old brain, but for some reason the idea of thinking about nothing intrigued me. In fact, I remember taking it almost as a challenge, something to try out to see if I could do it. I recall climbing half way up the stairs in our semi-detached cottage in Suffolk, and staring at the white wall, trying to think of nothing at all. I also remember vividly how at first it seemed impossible – and then suddenly, for just a fraction of a second, a space appeared between my thoughts, and nothing remained save the wall and my seeing of it. I think I then just shrugged the experience off as merely interesting, but years later, when I began sitting zen meditation, I ended up doing that very same thing – staring at a wall, and trying not to think. (In fact of course this is not quite true, the aim of zazen is not to stop thoughts, but rather to allow them to pass, like clouds, and then subside, by concentrating on breath and posture).
The legend goes that Bodhidharma, the founder and first patriarch of ch’an in China (which subsequently became known as zen in Japan), reached enlightenment after nine years spent staring at the wall of a cave. Fifteen centuries later, and more than thirty years after my childhood glimpse of nothingness, I find myself once again wall-gazing – maybe there really is something in this practice. I will sign off with the words to Stonehouse, a 13th century Chinese monk, who speaks of stillness more eloquently than I. (Poem borrowed from Kashyapi).
Study the patterns of transient existence.
The outcome of a game of chess isn’t fixed.
A monk in the mountains needs to be free.
People in the dust grow old unaware.
Wind blows tea smoke over my bed.
The stream drops petals into a pond.
With thirty-six thousand days.
Why not spend a few being still?