I met with the Dalai Lama recently. On the table there were two tidy stacks of neatly printed long slips of paper, loose pages, of the Sanskrit text of the Buddha’s teaching that he is studying in depth at this time. He first memorised it at the age of eight but understandably did not enjoy the task. By twelve he was entering formal debate with students and scholars about the text. Now seventy years later, like a violinist with a piece of Bach that has been part of his repertoire for decades, he is still exploring the depths of wisdom in the words on the paper and, perhaps even more, the wisdom residing in the spaces between the words. He spoke about it with enthusiasm and freshness as if he had just discovered it.
I once wandered into a rabbinical study hall beside the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I think someone had left the door open and, feigning innocence, I entered a beehive of scripture study. The long room was filled with scholars young and old swaying to and fro, reciting – or humming – the words of the Torah. St Benedict says in his Rule that the monks should not disturb each other while they read during lectio, suggesting the noise of reading aloud in a confined space, which was the normal way of reading until the early modern period.
In the Wikipedia-Google era we think we don’t need to memorise anything and don’t think much about memory itself until we feel it is failing or deserting us. Yet training the memory is a way of strengthening the power of attention which is the great determinant of quality of life. Those who are distracted allow life to slip through their busy fingers. Thinking they are getting a lot of experience they may in fact be holding very little. They feel things very fleetingly and retain no lasting impression. Notes taken on a laptop may stay on the hard drive but they don’t sink into the mind of the note-taker in the way that hand-written notes do.
There is a great interest in ‘mindfulness’ today. This is a hopeful sign of a culture becoming aware of what it is losing before it forgets what it is that it has lost. But there are kinds of mindfulness. There is that born of a short-lived knee-jerk reaction to this awareness of loss, which becomes itself just another symptom of the decline into cultural dementia. Then there is the sustainable, transformative mindfulness born of a meditation practice woven into daily life.
Lent is a season to reflect on these nuances of our survival and our flourishing. The day-long and the lifelong.