In An Evil Cradling, in which Brian Keenan vividly described his kidnapping and imprisonment in Beirut by Islamic fundamentalists, there is a passage where he speaks of a fearful attachment to his shoes. If these were taken away from him, he felt, he would surely never see freedom again. When you have no shoes you are going nowhere. In some religious traditions the shoes are always removed before meditation, and perhaps for a similar reason: to meditate is to stop moving.
To meditate is to stop moving, to stop running away. It is to ‘imprison’ oneself in a discipline of meditation and to make oneself vulnerable. Jesus was fastened hand and foot to the cross: this meant that he could do nothing and go nowhere. In some icons he is called the ‘Pantokrator’, the Ruler of all; but in the supreme moment of his life he could not rule even his own limbs. Clearly the word ‘freedom’ is one of those deep but highly ambiguous words.
If you are in prison you are unfree in a physical sense, but spiritually and mentally you may be very free: much more so than any of your warders, perhaps. If you are out of prison you are free in a physical sense, but spiritually and mentally you may be deeply enslaved. Walking around, apparently in freedom, are millions of people who are securely imprisoned in themselves: through addictions of all sorts, through fear of ever being alone and unoccupied for more than a little while, through mental or physical laziness, through enslavement to passions and evil habits.... The deepest enslavement is to oneself. Personal freedom is a personal conquest, wise men and women tell us: high talk has nothing to do with it; much of what is trumpeted about freedom is only a rattling of chains. We inflame one another about external freedom because we are all equally embarrassed by our own spiritual and mental slavishness. A real conquest of freedom is an urgent matter for every person. If you are not free of yourself, we are told, you are not free at all. But if you are free of yourself, then nothing can imprison you.
Meditation is a conquest of inner freedom. You ‘imprison’ yourself in a practice of meditation in order to be deeply free of yourself. When I say ‘imprison’ I mean to say: hold yourself to the practice and do not let it depend on whims of the moment. Nothing is ever achieved by stopping and starting; you are up against the constant urge to enslave yourself in different ways, and so your effort has to be a constant one. Choose a time and place where you will meditate every day, and make it an invariable practice. Place an icon there, if you wish, and light a candle. Use whatever helps you. That place deserves honour, for it is going to become the anchorage of your life.
Take off your shoes! Begin by remembering the Lord’s presence and asking for help. Remember the priceless gift of time that is given to you moment by moment. Be aware also of the constant urge there is to ‘push’ time past you: to overrun the present moment in order to make something happen.... Be aware of that restlessness. I don't say, Control it! (You would begin to do that with the very same restlessness!) Instead, be simply aware of it; that’s enough. Anything else that may happen will happen of itself. It is a matter of getting down (on your knees, so to speak) to look at time in the closest possible way: looking at the texture of it, knowing the feel of it, liking it, and not wishing to push it past you. Enter each moment as if it were an eternity. You are not going anywhere, you are not trying to make anything happen, you are simply sitting still and watching time closely as it passes. Time is a priceless gift of God; the least we can do is look closely at it. If a feeling of boredom assails you, look at it! Look at everything that arises within you. Just look, don't judge. And don't try to hurry anything up, or to slow anything down. If you can stay in that ‘place’, you have gone down below the storms of restlessness and all desire, the whirlwinds of addiction and compulsion, the disquiet that fear of being unoccupied causes in you. Only when viewed from that place can your thoughts and actions be really understood. That is the place where freedom is born.
[Extract from I Remember Your Name in the Night: thinking about death,
Donagh O'Shea, Dominican Publications (Dublin) and Twenty-Third Publications (CT), 1997