The opportunity of our life:

advice from my teacher


I don’t mind admitting that my 19-year-old self was quite disappointed when one of my first teachers, the Benedictine monk Sylvester Houedard,[1] told me to stop dreaming about enlightenment: “Just practice living peacefully with your ordinary life. Begin afresh each day, each hour, each moment.”

I had recently come to live at Prinknash Abbey and came away from our conversation very determined to follow his advice – and immediately replaced my pictures of enlightenment with some rather romantic pictures about what living peacefully with my ordinary life would look like.

When my teacher asked me how things were going a couple of weeks later, he saw straight through what I was doing – and patiently encouraged me to let go of my latest glossy pictures of the spiritual life.

In meditation we practice living peacefully with each moment. We simply say our word and follow our breath, greeting each moment without any idea of what that moment should look or feel like.

It goes without saying that this is easier said than done. Most of us come to meditation with some idea of how we want our meditation to look and feel, which is to say, how we want our life to look and feel; hence my teacher’s advice to let this go and just begin, and begin, and keep beginning.

In the stillness of meditation, we become aware of our desires for all sorts of things. We see the subtle ways we try to avoid being with our life, being with ourselves. We come face-to-face with our fears, our resistance to simply being who we are. Which is why practice sometimes takes courage and needs loving support.

It takes courage to just be still. It takes courage to stop reacting to life the way we’ve always done, to pause, to see, to do something entirely different. We need to show ourselves kindness. We need the loving support of others, like our online practice community.[2]

This teaching from the time of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is full of wise advice and gentle encouragement for all of us.

A brother went through a time of such a struggle that he couldn’t keep his monastic rule. Later, when he tried to start keeping even the basics of the rule, he was hampered by his suffering. He said to himself, “When will I be as I used to be?” In this gloomy state of mind, he could not even bring himself to start his prayers.

In great despair, he sought guidance from a hermit and told him what had been happening. When the hermit heard of his sufferings, he told him this story by way of example:

A man had a plot of land, which he neglected. In his carelessness brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns.

Then he decided to cultivate it and said to his son, “Go and clear that ground.”

So, the son went to clear it, and saw that the thistles and thorns had multiplied. And his resolve weakened, and he said, “It’s going to take an endless amount of time to clear and weed all this.”

So, overwhelmed, he lay down and went to sleep. And he did this day after day.

When his father came to see what he had done he found him doing nothing and said to him, “Why have you done nothing till now?”

The boy said to his father, “I was coming to work, father, but when I saw this wilderness of thorn and thistle I was overwhelmed and too intimidated to start, and so I lay on the ground and went to sleep.”

 Then his father said to him, “Son, if you had cleared a little each day, even the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart.”

So, the boy followed his father’s advice and in a short time the land was cultivated.

Then hermit added, “So, brother, just do a little work and do not be discouraged, and God will give you grace and bring you back to your proper way of life.”

The brother went away and patiently did what the hermit had told him. And doing so, he found peace of mind, and made progress with the help of the Lord Christ. [3]

In meditation, we stop listening to the discriminating mind that is happy to chatter until the cows come home about how life really ought to be looking or feeling.

Minus our reactive commentary saying that a sound during our meditation is annoying, there is just a noise, just the experience of sound waves, which are neither good or bad.

Minus our reactive commentary about the presence of pain or fear (which gives rise to mental suffering), there is just the experience of pain or fear, which is more than enough to deal with.

When the discriminating mind isn’t present, life is just is as it is.

Life continues, but our experience of life becomes more open, flexible and peaceful. Instead of experiencing ourselves as someone opposing this or that piece of life, we become more able to move with life’s movement, to flow with life’s ceaseless flow.

Our ego doesn’t suddenly disappear.  The problems of life don’t suddenly stop. Life continues with its steady habit of just happening. But our whole relationship with life has changed.

Sooner or later, as we continue with our practice of stillness, of seeing and pausing our noisy reactivity, we begin to notice something remarkable.

We begin to sense a place of calm and freedom that is always present.

We come to see that beneath all the mental and emotional noise and turmoil we face, there is a depthless-depth of peace.

It’s wonderful to see the real therapeutic benefits of this simple practice in people’s lives. But what is most wonderful to me, and endlessly inspiring, is when people begin realise that the peace they encounter is the deepest truth of who they are.

God is our being.[4] And God is Peace.[5]

“Just practice living peacefully with your ordinary life. Begin afresh each day, each hour, each moment.”

[1] Sylvester Houedard OSB,


[3] The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics, 2003), Chap.7 (Fortitude), Saying 40 (slightly altered).

[4] See The Book of Privy Counselling, chap. 1, in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 104.

[5] Judges 6:24; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 2 Corinthians 13:11.

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