“God be in my understanding” — a yogi’s perspective

Just because I can’t define it or describe it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’m talking about spirituality and yoga. Or rather spirituality and my yoga. It’s something I feel very uncomfortable about as a lifelong atheist. And yet my yoga practice was never a purely physical practice; it sprang from my meditation. But increasingly I find I’m softening round the edges, becoming more open to… something. A feeling of commonality, shared humanity, an awareness of the suffering of others and how I can either contribute to that or ameliorate it (I certainly can’t remain indifferent to it). A tenderness for the world and everything in it. I’m not sure I know how to look outside my experience of the physical world yet, but these feelings are more than enough for now.

So in the spirit of openness and acceptance of — and curiosity about — the beliefs and practices of others I went to Anglican Compline last week. I was interested to experience this evening service, or office, after an friend said that my descriptions of meditation reminded her of this — both being a simple moment of reflection and quiet. I was intrigued by her description of a candlelit chapel with simple liturgical music after which everyone departed in silence, a silence not to be broken until the following morning.

For the historical or theological nerds: the earliest formal description of Compline (from the Latin complere, ‘to complete’) is found in St. Benedict’s Rule. He wanted the prayer kept simple: Psalm, hymn, chapter, blessing, and dismissal. “After Compline,” wrote St. Benedict, “no one may speak.”

complineIn my experience of compline I was largely preoccupied by the physical space. I find ecclesiastical architecture fascinating (particularly Catholic or Orthodox — I love all the gold!) and the sense of space rising above one’s head does invite a certain sense of inner tranquillity. And candlelight is always a good thing. Though I was glad to have arrived before the lights were completely dimmed down, so that I could admire the frescoes and stained glass windows.

The choir, out of sight in a side-chapel, sang John Rutter’s setting of one of the earliest English prayers from the Sarum Primer of 1514:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing…

If I don’t tie myself in knots with the semantics of the word ‘god’ this was something I could relate to. I could interpret it as a call to maintain a mindful attitude in all things. At least it felt no more difficult than the guru mantra:

Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara,
Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namah

Compline was peaceful and beautiful to my ears and my eyes, but unfortunately St Benedict’s ruling that “no one may speak” afterwards was shattered by my companion telling off the rowdy group of undergraduate outside the chapel as we left as well as by the mundane pleasantries of leave-taking and negotiating my way home.


Guru mantra source: http://jivamuktiyoga.com/teachings/focus-of-the-month/p/guru-mantra

Interpreted as: Our creation is that guru (Brahma-the force of creation); the duration of our lives is that guru (Vishnu-the force of preservation); our trials, tribulations, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru (devo Maheshwara-the force of destruction or transformation). There is a guru nearby (Guru Sakshat) and a guru that is beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my ignorance; (Guru) it is to you I bow and lay down my life (namah).

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