The bus was so crowded that inching towards the exit door was like being squeezed through a mangle. "Permesso?" ("May I pass?") seemed such a ridiculous request – until you realised it was not a question at all but a final warning. Yes, this was a Roman bus, and you counted yourself lucky if you were extruded from it at the right stop.
Above the noise a shrill voice rose in anger, creating some silence all around. One woman was brow-beating another with unrestrained fury, charging her with things unspeakable; it was humiliation on a grand scale, almost like a public execution. The other would reply in a voice so downcast that the anonymity of the crowd seemed to change to a shared pity and horror... It was only barely articulate, more like a howl of sorrow. Then the accusing voice again. After a while, the most striking thing was the repetitiveness on both sides; somehow this made it worse. The Italian vocabulary of abuse is very rich; why this clinical repetitiveness? It was like slowly cutting someone's throat.
As I squeezed my way towards the exit I came in view of them – or rather her. To my astonishment I saw that the two voices were coming from one and the same person. Still she continued, not only her voice but her whole appearance changing as she switched from one role to the other; she was both people. She was all alone on the bus, as if we were not there; but inside she was two people in terrible conflict with each other. Just imagine: they could never be separated day or night, and their conflict would go on forever.
I thought, "There but for the grace of God go I!" But in a while I had to shorten it. "There go I!" I talk to myself too, and I often berate myself without mercy. So do you, probably. It's always a revelation to see the extreme. The extremist is just further along the line than we are. Run your eye back a bit and see yourself! The extremist is yourself written large. Schizophrenics are not the only persons who are divided within themselves. We all are. In that poor woman you can see exposed what you have managed to keep hidden. The divided self.
To meditate is to touch that spot. Let’s begin. Switch off all your life-support systems, such as radio and television; then switch off that sub-vocal dialogue that you keep going day and night (this is not as easy as switching off a radio). You will find that you don't disappear, you are still alive. In fact you are more alive, more awake. You may think you are cutting your contacts with the human race. On the contrary, you are going deeper to a level where you are truly one with other human beings. You begin to get used to the paradox that solitude can put you in touch with others, that without solitude your contact with others is superficial or non-existent. The poor tormented woman was all alone on the bus, but inwardly she was haunted by voices. She had no solitude within her, but there were deserts all around her. When you try to meditate you are grappling with the very same problem. If you enter meditate every day, even for a short time, you begin to discover a greater depth in your life; and this depth, far from cutting you off from others, will deepen your solidarity with them. You will be one with everyone you we meet and with every sufferer; you will also be able "to rejoice with those who rejoice" instead of being in competition with them.
Do it every day. Sit quietly in a place where you will not be disturbed by phones ringing, or especially by human voices or music (other noises are no problem). Sit upright and relax the body (we often think that relaxation means flop-down). As you exhale, let all your tensions and nervousness leave you with the breath. As you inhale, breathe in peace. When you begin to fret about something, notice how this is expressed by muscular tension somewhere in the body. Relax that tension, and continue to breathe quietly. If you persevere you will find that your heart opens to include other people in all their pain and joy, even though you are not thinking about them. You are one with them in the Body of Christ. Your own humanity is theirs – and his. Their pain and joy is somehow yours – and his. Their inner agonies are yours – and his. This, not the fractured 'I' that talks to itself, is our true nature.
From In a Fitful Light: Conversations on Christian Living, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994