For 48 years, my wife and I have lived in an old Nova Scotia farmhouse near the Bay of Fundy. Our windows look out on a quilt of woodlot, field and salt marsh rich in legend and history: Glooscap, Champlain, Evangeline, the New England Planters of 1760.
Tourists gawk at our monster tides and take photos of cows grazing on pastures impossibly green. “What a lovely spot you have!” visitors always say. “So peaceful.”
I thought so too — until I tried to meditate.
The word “meditate” literally means to “middle” or centre oneself. This never interested me much until 1993, when I visited a Montreal retreat centre founded 16 years earlier by the late John Main, a Benedictine monk who revived the lost tradition of Christian meditation.
That weekend, kneeling with others in the peaceful meditation hall on Mount Royal’s leafy shoulder, I vowed to take his peace home with me. All you had to do was sit still in a quiet place twice a day and mentally chant your word, your mantra, for 20 to 30 minutes. No problem: I’m an early riser; the kids had flown; our place is very quiet. Or so I imagined.
Back home, it’s a fine June morning during my first year of meditation. A waning sickle moon hangs in my open east-facing window as I sit comfortably erect, muscles relaxed, eyes closed. The only sound is my breathing. Inhale. Exhale.
Silently, I begin to recite the simple word that quells all distracting thoughts: Maranatha. Slowly the mind’s chatter subsides, the heart’s drumbeat slows. A tide of peace creeps in —
“Cawww!” A lone crow on its minaret announces the sun. Answering calls float up from the forest, a chorus of robins, whitethroats and warblers. With effort, I resume my mantra.
Moments later, our dog, Sidney, descends stiffly from his creaky chair, pads across the porch floor and laps water. Say your mantra.
Then comes the purr of the fridge compressor cutting in, followed by the furnace fan. Warm dry air brushes my cheek. Say the mantra.
A housefly, warmed by the rising sun, revs its motor and blunders about between curtain and sash. A whiff of new-mown hay tickles my nose. Never mind; say your word.
Around 7 a.m., the first car speeds along our gravel road. That would be Glenn, who works flex-time at the sign shop in town. Under his tires, the newly graded gravel sounds like corn flakes being crushed. Say your —
Sidney woofs under the kitchen door. Sid is nearly 11, and his bladder isn’t what it used to be. A larger racket heralds the passage of a manure tanker lugging 5,000 litres of slush to a holding pond. Never mind; try again.
But it’s no use. The commotion will only escalate. Maybe monks in hilltop retreats can do it; I can’t. My stomach growling, I rise, go downstairs, let Sid out, feed the cats, light the fire, fill the kettle, take a shower, start the day.
I did struggle on for another two years. Now I pray a different prayer. Not to Nature, who cares not a fig for human piety or wisdom, but to the God beyond. Though for all we know, the morning conversation of crows may contain more wisdom than all the mantras of Kathmandu.
Gary L. Saunders is a non-fiction author and retired forester who lives near Truro, N.S. This story originally appeared in Nature Canada, which ceased publication in 2000.