Location: St Leonard’s Church, South Stoke Road, Woodcote, Oxfordshire
(Recording made beside my pew in St Leonard’s church)
A handwritten notice outside the timeworn oak door of St Leonard’s Church says “PLEASE IGNORE HANDLE AND PUSH DOOR HARD”. I lent into the door, pushing against its resistance, until I abruptly overcame the inertia and stumbled in, almost prostrating myself before the font. The sound reverberated around the empty stone church, my embarrassment subsiding as I realized I was alone. I made my way, rather more reverently, to a pew about two thirds of the way down the nave, set up the recording gear and settled in to the space. After loading the ‘Zazen Lite’ app on my phone, I set the timer going for twenty minutes and waited a few seconds to begin the meditation. As the bright ‘ting’ of the bell faded, my attention was left lingering on the soft murmuring of distant traffic noise from the A4074 down the hill and the wind stirring the leaves in the various broad leafed and coniferous trees in the graveyard outside. This shifting drone was punctuated with bird calls including the familiar screech of kites circling on the thermals and planes circling on approach to Heathrow. The only noticeable break in this bed of shifting ambience was the occasional shout from the farmyard cottage next door or cars and vans passing hurriedly along the South Stoke Road. After a few minutes spent familiarising myself with the soundscape, I turned my attention to my breath. A simple gatha acted as a focus for following its rise and fall:
breathing in, I know I am breathing in,
breathing out, I know I am breathing out,
The scarcity of sounds interrupting the calm of the village meant that distractions came mostly from my own thoughts, thoughts about the sound recording, the project and my solitary presence in the empty church space. Some thoughts lingered, meandering from one to the other whilst others surfaced and swiftly vanished. It was, however, quite a struggle to hold my attention on the breath for any length of time, my mind was habitually pulling in a variety of directions.
About fifteen minutes into the meditation, the sense of struggle stopped, quite instantaneously. The environmental sound appeared slightly sharper, brighter and clearer. My ability to stay with the gatha improved and my mind seemed to accept that this is what I wished to do. The excerpts of conversations with myself, the creaks of the pew and the wind and traffic outside still drew my ear, but I no longer had a compulsion to follow them or construct stories from them.
When the end of the meditation came, I packed the equipment away, this time with a heightened awareness of my movements. Quite naturally there arose a feeling of care and appreciation for the objects I was handling, accompanied with a presence and contentment markedly different from my experience of setting up. On my way out, I noticed the following biblical quote arching across the doorway:
THIS IS NONE OTHER THAN THE HOUSE OF GOD, AND THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN. GEN.XXVIII.17