Suspended in time, between pole and tropic / When the short day is brightest

I’m loving the winter this year.

I was at the Buddhist Monastery at Chithurst, West Sussex, over New Year. It’s the perfect palate-cleanser after the sugary stickiness of Christmas – a chance to strip back to bare wires using that austerity: one meal a day, 4am starts and all-night meditation sessions. In the simple silence of the place, I was able to do my annual End of Year Report.

I love New Year as a time to burrow into the darkness and cast my eyes back over the contours of the year. I dig out my diary and look back at what actually happened, month by month and I was astonished to discover how symmetrical 2006 was for me.

It began and ended in monasteries (Samye Ling last year, Chithurst this) and everything pivoted on the axial Dorje Phurbe Drupchen up on Holy Island. That sun-bleached madness was about clearing obstacles – even if the clearance caused pain – and that’s certainly what happened in this painfully raw year. Symmetrical around the Drupchen, there were 2 courses on Holy Island (one in June, one in August); on either side of that there were 2 trips to Brazil and on either side of them were 2 trips to New York. One brief love affair was enclosed in the brief flaring of another in January and December.

The two halves of the year mirror each other like the wings of a Rorschach test: the first half difficult, the second, delightful.

So in the wide oaken expanse of the Chithurst meditation hall, I let all these patterns sift out into something like meaning and stepped back to look at it.

I think winter is so valuable for that. One of the nuns in the Chithurst sangha, Ajahn Taniya pointed out how the tyranny of electric light has made us live the whole year as if it were summer. Despite the short, cold days we still expect to party and play as if the sun were still shining at 10 at night. Capitalism expects us to produce exactly the same amount in the winter as in the summer. No concession is made to the fact that winter days are short precisely so we can get into bed early, curl up under blankets, read books, sleep more: hibernate.

Living out in the Sussex countryside, the monks and nuns are much more attuned to the natural order and spend the first 3 months of the year in closed-down retreat, curling up inwards like hedgehogs in the dark.

There were 2 symmetrical books this year. In May I started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which completely topsy-turvyfied my thinking about pleasure and creativity and God. And in December this year, I read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Free which prepared me totally for the joys of winter, of ‘leaning on the gatepost’ as he describes it: standing in the cold, wet air and just listening to birdsong or your neighbour’s radio. Doing nothing.

Eliot crystallizes it beautifully:

The brief sun flames the ice, on ponds and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
Th soul’s sap quivers.

And I thought of Eliot when I motored (rather grumpily) out into the Oxfordshire countryside to check out the Abbey in Sutton Courtenay. It’s the sort of English village he loved and iconized in the Four Quartets, echoes of Elizabethan England in the crow-loud cedar trees and red-brick chimney stacks. A beautiful village green with ancient church and manor house and the modest charm of the Abbey itself.

It’s not actually an Abbey, but infact a 13th Century ecclesiastical hall built on the site of a Saxon priest’s house – but the Great Hall with its lattice of beams and big fireplace at the end is wonderfully evocative and the courtyard around which the building circles is like a 500-year old English Zen garden. It immediately soothed me.

Organising courses is often a bit of a headache but this place is peaceful down to the very bricks. The community who run it are gentle and immediately de-frost all the icy cynicism a Londoner brings with him. A lunch of home-baked bread and spicy vegetable soup also helped.

I can’t wait to be teaching in that hall with the log fire blazing and the cold and wet banished to the outside. It’s the perfect place to meditate, safe and warm while the winter storms on in the dark.

(PS. I’m sure you’d guessed but all the pictures in this posting are from the Abbey.)

16 Comments

  1. robert

    January 16, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    what a wonderful post – the space sounds just divine and i
    envy your experience … but at least i will be able to
    enjoy your forthcoming posts!

    all the best for the year,

    your fan in philadelphia!

  2. Jameson

    January 17, 2007 at 7:27 am

    Alistair you’ve seriously got to check out Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in the summer.
    I’d gladly be your guide, you’d love all the nature here. You’ll totally be at home.

    http://www.gaydar.co.uk/sensoria

  3. Christian

    January 19, 2007 at 12:58 am

    It all sounds so wonderful and peaceful. Life usually picks up momentum for me in January, it must be nice to be in repose.

  4. Craig C. McNichol

    January 19, 2007 at 1:09 am

    Alistair,
    Your comments and thoughts are truly a pleasure to enjoy. I truly hope to be as spiritually centered as you are. I wish that you were a bit closer to the U.S., I sincerely feel that you and I have so much in common, that we would get on famously! Until that fateful day that we may meet, I will just have to be continually inspired by you! I look forward to your new ‘blog’ entries!
    A sincere admirer,
    Craig

  5. Lerps

    January 21, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I came across this piece by accident and kept reading mainly because of its intelligence and readability.

    While interested in the possibility of the divine and the spiritual, I have not experienced anything which has left me with any certainty about the existence of truth, enlightenment or meaning.

    Increasingly I find organised religion to be opaque, superstitious and bigoted and I am suspicious of spiritual questing.

    In your post there doesn’t appear to be any sense of trying to make your life fit some kind of spiritual template. Your joy seems as genuine as your grumpiness and you seem to document your own experience without hype.

    The post caused me to recall Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s ‘A Meditator’s Diary’, another piece of gentle and credible and human writing.

    I look forward to reading more.

  6. Elaine Mallett

    January 22, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    January is a month to be treasured – a time for rejuvenation and anticipation and a time just to be.

    If we went to bed when it became dark and got up when it became light, we could save so much energy, save our silvery winters and help save our amazing planet.

  7. Pablo

    January 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Hey, well i know the place and its just like you have described. There is a pub/restaurant near by , The hamilton Arms in Stedham, they are link to the temple its a thai restaurant thefood its incredible and a percentage of the bill goes to help the Mudita trust, wich is a charity that helps young girls to come out of prostitucion in Thailand; this place also organice every may a budhist festival in aid of the Budhist Temple
    http://www.thehamiltonarms.co.uk/index.shtml

  8. Pam Freeth

    January 30, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Your New Year sounds so peaceful and mine
    is so hectic. I am struggling to get organized after a busy holiday season. Your essay was wonderful to read and reminds me to take a deep breath and reflect.

  9. Tomas

    February 1, 2007 at 3:02 am

    Mr. Appleton,
    I am a big fan of yours, especially from Cash in the Attic. I was net surfing and discovered that among other things you are an actor and Buddist.I admire how well rounded you are. Hope to see more of you in the media.

    Sincerely yours,
    Tomas from New York City USA

  10. Ashley

    February 3, 2007 at 12:29 am

    Thank you so very much for taking the time to jot down your ideas an musings in this manner. I have been a big fan of your show and accidentally stumbled across this blog while searching the web. It is so very refreshing to have an opportunity to see a facet of your humanity in this way. Keep up the posts, I look forward to many more.

  11. Marc

    February 11, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Well I discovered you site out of curiosity after seeing you on Cash in the Attic, and I thank you for your vision and your inspiration. You are a fantastic role model for gay men and youth. I applaude you.

    I’m an Australian, living in the Cayman Islands at present. Find you outlook very positive and very refeshing.

    Blessings for the year ahead

    Marc

  12. Amanda

    February 12, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    *tap tap tap*
    Alistair, I know winter days are short and we can sleep more, but have you actually hibernated??
    *points at calendar*
    Post please?
    More fabby photo-collages please?

  13. Anthony

    February 16, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Having long been a fan of Alistair’s tv work and his writing here on Burningturban, it was a great privilege and pleasure to share 5 days with him at The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay. He is everything one wants in a teacher, host and friend. His guidance to five inexperienced meditators was kindly and inspiring. His joy of life, thoughts, ideas and humour were all enjoyed in full measure away from “the cushion”.I strongly encourage anyone to join Alistair at one of his courses.
    The Abbey is a wonderful place to escape to – the folk are so friendly and the food is out of this world!

  14. Daniel Murray

    February 19, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Dear Alistair:

    I so enjoy your questions and musings and adventurous nature. There is a freedom too to your spirituality that I enjoy very much.

    I spent my weekend with my “meditation group” and a saying came up over and over again: “Nothing changes until you do.” (“And…you are changing; but you don’t have to do it alone.”) Many times I meditate alone, but it is delightful to do it with others…at times.

    As I read along to where your life goes here, I appreciate your willingness to venture into new ideas and new places: both mentally and physically.

    As I sit here this morning — in a very chilly and wet Los Angeles — I send you much gratitude.

    Daniel Murray

  15. Piet van der Steen

    February 28, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    Great pictures, did you make them?

  16. Niki

    December 18, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Just to say I have enjoyed your thoughts throughout your wesbite and thoroughly enjoy watching you (when time allows) on TV. You have a captivating persona and I knew you had a sense of calm within your aura so had to check you out on the internet! Very interested to learn you teach meditation, so do I. I also work as a Complementary Health Therapist and Healer. Although my path is Druid (I run a Druid grove) I lean towards Buddhist philosopy. Alistair you are a pleasure to watch on TV!

    Rich Blessings,

    Niki x

Leave a Reply