Sunday, June 29, 2008

Come Into Our Labyrinth

Today I helped make a labyrinth, although this didn't involve planting hedges or building stone walls. It was a contemplative labyrinth: a pattern on the ground with a single twisting path but no forks or dead ends. A person walking through this maze focuses on her footsteps and stills her mind as she walks towards the centre. There's a famous example on the floor of Chartres cathedral.

My meditation group will introduce meditation to the pilgrims at World Youth Day using a number of contemplative exercises. We wanted to include a labyrinth, which saw me travel to Peter Hawes' flat in Coogee this morning to help make it. We reproduced the 7 ring Gracefield labyrinth shown above, rather than the 11 ring Chartres design, to allow for wider paths in limited space.

Peter had sewn velcro straps to a king size sheet, which we stretched across his living room floor. We taped the edges and ironed it very flat (particularly in two spots where I dwelt too long on a particular wrinkle and melted the carpet). Then we used a string and pencil attached to a central pivot to trace concentric circles on the sheet, drew some radial lines and erased bits of the circles to create a plan of the maze.

Fellow meditator Rosemary and Peter's brother Jeff arrived to help with the next stage, slicing 15mm wide strips of adhesive felt. We removed the backing and laid the felt along the pencil outline to form the "walls" of the labyrinth.

Next we cut pieces of black cloth with a floral pattern to fill gaps and round the corners of the path for a more pleasing aesthetic effect. Here's Peter gluing down the cloth for the first rounded corner.

Here's Peter surveying the final product. Well almost final: he plans to sew the felt and cloth to the sheet since the glue may not survive hundreds of scuffing feet. The smaller floral designs don't show up in this photo but you can see large red flowers in the central enclosure, the big gap and a couple of the turns.

The design is pretty, and has a clever way of creating stillness. The last stages in the centre have tighter and more closely spaced turns, so the walker has to slow down to navigate them. It's fortunate that we're using it for World Youth Day: older people might turn their ankles!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strolling Around Sydney Harbour

The flat I'm sharing is in a great location, quite close to the centre of Sydney but on the north side of the harbour. This means I get to ride a bus or train across the Harbour Bridge when I travel to the city centre. I'm also close to some fantastic walks. This afternoon I caught a bus to the beachside suburb of Manly and completed the Manly Scenic Walk, a 9km route through a variety of harbour landscapes.

Initially I strolled along footpaths in front of fancy harbourside houses in Manly and Fairlight, indulging in some property voyeurism (probably Sydney's most popular pastime). Then I got my boots slightly wet crossing a beach and some rocks to enter the national park on Dobroyd Head. The track meandered through an environment that hasn't changed much since European settlement: scrubby native vegetation, Aboriginal rock carvings of kangaroos, fish and boomerangs, and spectacular views through the heads out to the open ocean.

The path skirted a suburban park and soccer field, complete with an ice cream van to provide a mid afternoon sugar boost, before dipping down to the base of some cliffs. Then I was walking along Middle Harbour, again gawking at expensive houses as I crossed a beach and a park planted with Norfolk Island pines. The final section cut through some more scrub to the Spit Bridge, which swings open occasionally to let bigger boats through. I then caught a bus home through heavy traffic (all the pretty peninsulas and inlets make for a tangled and congested road network).

I'm lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world, and such a temperate climate. It was sunny all afternoon, with only a few fluffy white clouds. At the start of the walk it was about 17 C, with a brisk but still pleasant sea breeze. As I headed inland the wind eased considerably, while the temperature dropped to about 14 C as the sun set. Quite pleasant for the middle of winter!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why I Meditate

For many years I've meditated twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Often I'm asked why I do it, and recently I thought of a new reason. Meditation is an excellent preparation for death.

Death forces people to abandon most aspects of their life: the body, possessions, relationships with other people. Even if there's a soul that survives, much of the mind probably disappears as well. All this will be taken by compulsion at some time, and life's final challenge is to relinquish that life willingly.

The discipline I follow is mantra meditation: sitting still with a straight back and repeating a mantra in the mind. I have to let go of other distracting thoughts and desires, a process that becomes easier with practice. Regular renunciation of my external life should allow me to leave the world happily when death comes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Indecisive Wildlife

Australian native animals sure take their time fleeing from possible danger. On a nature walk this afternoon through Flat Rock Gully, I spotted a brush turkey on a ledge near the path. It wasted a good five seconds looking at both edges of the rock, before retreating up the path it must have taken to get there in the first place. My parents have observed similar behaviour in wombats: they turn to examine both sides of the road before ambling off in one direction to avoid oncoming traffic.

The Australian environment has a lower and less reliable energy supply than most ecosystems: the soils are poor and the rainfall is highly variable from year to year. The animals have evolved to move slowly and conserve energy, as they can't be assured of eating well in the future. I wonder if they'll develop faster reflexes after a few centuries of interaction with faster, more responsive introduced animals (cats, foxes, humans). Perhaps I should chase the next brush turkey I see and give natural selection a nudge.