The Practice of Meditation

a glimpse of light (a view through one of the magnificent caves at Douglas Park, called 'The Eye of the Needle'

a glimpse of light – a view through one of the magnificent caves at Douglas Park, called ‘The Eye of the Needle’

During his days at the Ashram, St. Mary’s Towers, Douglas Park, Fr. Vyn Bailey msc guided many of us on the path of meditation practice. The following is some his teaching.

From devotedness to God comes perfection of contemplation

Perfection comes only gradually. Lifestyles change only by degrees. If we were to wait until we were 100 per cent ready before trying to meditate, we would never get round to it. The fact is that not only does a sincere effort to improve our lifestyle help us to meditate, but the practice of meditation is itself a powerful factor in making our lifestyle more acceptable.

In the actual meditation session the operative word is stillness. Yoga is the stilling of movement in the mind. This is what many people find difficult. The secret is to begin not with the mind, but with the body. Posture stills the body; breathing stills the mind; meditation stills the spirit. When body, mind and spirit are still, God can get through to us. We take them one at a time.

Posture Stills the Body

Two features a meditation posture must possess: it must be without movement for the period of the meditation as well as without discomfort.

Hatha yoga offers several classical postures: lotus, hero, perfected and others. They lock the body into a virtually immovable position which, if mastered, can be maintained for a considerable time. Mastering any one of them requires preliminary training, and is best learned from a teacher.

For others, the Egyptian posture proves quite effective, and many experienced meditators will use no other. Like the Egyptian Pharaohs we use a chair, with a level seat and a straight back. Sit with the feet comfortably close together, toes pointing in their natural direction. Shoes, watches, glasses, belts and heavy jewellery are best not worn. The lower legs should be vertical, the thighs horizontal. If the seat is too low, use a cushion. lf too high, place the cushion under your feet. Back, neck and head should be in a straight, vertical line. Sit tall. Your back should be supported fairly high up, at about shoulder-blade level. You’ll need to carry your chin a little higher than you normally do. The head is balanced: imagine it is suspended by a skyhook, with the neck and the rest of the body hanging from it. This should give you a feeling of freeness about the neck to enable you to make those tiny adjustments that will ensure it sits comfortably. The hands should not be clasped, but just resting comfortably on the knees, thighs, arms of the chair or together on the lap. Give the body time to settle into place. You are now in a position to begin.

With relaxation of effort and identification with the infinite

Meditation combines complete stillness with full awareness. When we have placed our body in the meditation position we allow it simply to be. We have done whatever was needed to make the posture right. This involved a certain amount of adjustment and effort and now the interlocking of our limbs, or the laws of gravity, will keep us without movement and without discomfort for the period of our meditation. The operative word now is relaxation. Do nothing – just be as you are.

We are not in a trance, but fully awake, alert and aware. We are aware of our posture, aware of our body. The eyes are closed, but we are looking at our body from the inside. This posture awareness is so important, and extremely relaxing. I am consciously aware of my feet, my legs, thighs, trunk, back, neck, head, hands, arms, all those parts I have been putting into position.

My awareness moves back and forth over my body like a searchlight over the water. No matter how strong the searchlight, hundreds or thousands of watts, it does not disturb the surface of the water. But it picks up any disturbances that may be there – eddies, ripples or wavelets. It does not even smooth them out. It simply observes them melt away.

With practice, posture will be achieved in a minute or less, but posture awareness must be maintained for a good five minutes or more. Do not try to meditate. Your mind is not yet ready, and it is useless to try to meditate until the mind is ready to.

Relaxed posture awareness leads naturally to identification with the infinite. I am normally conscious of my physical limitations because I feel trapped inside this body of mine. I occupy only so much space, can reach out and touch only so far and no further. I know I have a soul, but instinctively I think of it as fitting just inside my body, like a hand in a glove, no bigger than the body which encloses it.

But as relaxation takes over, as the stillness deepens, I imperceptibly lose this sense of body, which means I can lose this consciousness of limitation. I am no longer conscious of my body restricting me. I may have a feeling that I am growing larger, even floating in the limitless air, part of infinite space, boundary-less. Physically I am still in the body, but I am not my body, and am granted a glimpse of what I really am.

From this comes freedom from interference by the opposites

We live in a world of opposites: heat and cold, wet and dry, hard and soft, sweet and sour, male and female, light and dark, and so on. In our mental world it is the same: true and false, knowledge and ignorance, yes and no, doubt and certainty. The list seems endless. In our emotions we experience love and hate, desire and aversion, fear and security, like and dislike, good and evil, pain and pleasure.

Our world is made up of pairs of opposites. Until we learn to manage them, they can produce stress and tension. We are sad when we want to be happy; worried when we want to be serene; sick instead of well. We are tense like a tightened string, and it is this taut string that vibrates. lt is the reaction that produces the discord – the discord that only heightens the tension.

Conflicting opposites are the main source of our distractions in meditation. So we do not encourage them. We try to eliminate them as much as possible. We choose our meditation place carefully: away from others; not too draughty, yet not too stuffy; not too glaring, yet not too dark; not noisy, but some find complete silence eerie and disturbing (soft music in the background could be the answer). We choose a time we can have to ourselves.

But what if the opposites do interfere, if tensions do intrude, if distractions try to take over? The very practice of meditation is meant to deal with them. Meditation, as we have seen, means relaxation, even to the point of identification with the infinite.

Not all at once, it is true; but perseverance in the practice will soon show results. The moments of stillness and calm will lengthen, and also become more frequent. We may even finish a session and realise for the first time that we are chilled, or stiff, or have pins and needles. We may have been that way for some time, but didn’t even notice it. When meditating we were relaxed, not tense, not taut; so we did not react, did not even notice.

This holds for the long term also. Over the weeks we become aware of an almost imperceptible change. We are taking more and more in our stride, brushing off things that used to upset us, getting along with people we thought couldn’t get along with us. Relaxation is the answer, detachment is the attitude. Meditation produces relaxation, encourages detachment.

Breath Awareness

Every meditation session should begin with at least five minutes’ attention to posture. Beginners may find they need these five minutes or more to get the posture right. Take all the time you need to adjust. If you don’t get the posture right at the beginning of your meditation, you’ll feel discomfort later on. When you then try to adjust, you’ll find you are only shifting the discomfort from one part of your body to another. Also, the fact that you begin by giving all your attention to your body posture means that you are training your mind to attend to one thing at a time. Distractions are already on the way out.

With practice you’ll soon be slipping into your correct position very quickly. Use the remainder of your five minutes for awareness of your posture. There is no such thing as instant relaxation. The muscles of the body relax progressively. Some parts, like the back, take quite a while to let go tensions that have been building up ever since you woke up in the morning.

We know from both the Old and New Testaments that life is identified with the breath. After attending to stillness of body, we still the mind though breath control. We can breathe slowly or rapidly, deep or shallow, regular or not. We can even halt our breathing for minutes at a time. If I am disturbed emotionally, as by a sudden burst of anger, a few deep breaths can have a calming effect, steadying me till reason takes over. So the process (rhythm and rate) of breathing can be modified, both in breathing out, and in breathing in. Breath control consists in a modification of the process of exhalation and inhalation. The mode of breathing – exhalation, inhalation, suspension (holding the breath either after the inhalation or after the exhalation, or both) – regulated as to depth, duration and number, becomes prolonged and delicate.

One or other or all of these can be regulated, as is done in various breathing exercises. We can vary the depth by breathing deep or shallow, chest level, abdomen, or right down to our toes. We can vary the duration of each breath, lengthening or shortening it. We can vary the number of breaths we take in each round.

Simply direct your awareness to your breathing. Don’t try to change it. Just observe it. Notice how you breathe: how air enters your nostrils and makes its way to the lungs. Notice the feeling of fullness there, then the release of the air, the exhalation. Observe any bodily changes: the chest lifting on the inward breath, settling back on the outward; the ribcage expanding, then contracting. If you are a deep breather you may feel as though the breath is going right down into your stomach. It’s not, of course, but the diaphragm pressing down on the waist muscles and the abdominal organs does give that impression. Is the outward breath more prolonged than the inward, or the other way around? After you breathe out do you immediately breathe in, or is there a time of suspension? After the inward breath do you hold your breath for a bit before breathing out?

There is so much to observe that five minutes or more will pass with no trouble. You will not have been thinking of worries or anxieties, of yesterday’s mistakes or tomorrow’s challenges. Posture stills the body; breathing rests the mind.

In all this you do not attempt to change your breathing, or try to breathe any better. You simply observe any changes that take place, and you go along with them. You will probably notice how your breathing gradually becomes smoother and more prolonged, and lighter and more delicate.

We have mentioned three elements in the breathing process: exhalation, inhalation and suspension. Breath awareness gives rise to a fourth element. We can reach the point where we no longer notice whether we are breathing in or breathing out.

This need not surprise us. You may have noticed that after you switched from posture awareness to breath awareness, you were soon no longer aware of your body or its posture.

So too with the breathing. The mind is moving into stillness. As the stillness deepens, the mind gradually notices less and less. There is a letting go of its concern with the business of breathing in and out. As the stillness invades the mind you no longer notice whether you are exhaling or inhaling. There may even be suspension in the very breath-stream itself, usually unnoticed, like serenity in the midst of tranquillity.

You may continue well beyond the five minutes allotted. You are finding stillness, which is what meditation is all about. I have mentioned that in breath awareness we do not try to improve our breathing or change it in any way, we simply observe it. If changes do occur, we don’t try to stop them. We just observe them and go along with them.

Strictly speaking it is not “I” that is breathing; my lungs are doing the breathing – I am simply the observer. I am coming one step closer to my realisation of the self as observer, as the one who sees. At the very beginning, Patanjali speaks of the seer abiding in his own very nature. I am the seer, watching my lungs at work. I am beginning to understand what Patanjali is talking about.

The treatment of breathing, more than to any other element in meditation is of supreme importance, because through that right practice of breath awareness the seer will begin to see the Light. The veil hiding it will steadily be removed. What is this screen that is blocking the light? It is my distorted vision that prevents me from perceiving my true self.

There is a little joke I play on people. I ask: ‘What do you weigh? The answer always comes back: ‘Fifty-five kilos’, or sixty or seventy. I reply: ‘No, you don’t. Your body weighs all those kilos; but you are not your body. You – the real you – is weightless.’ That simple question and the ready answer shows how we automatically identify with the body.

There was a moment when a male and a female cell came together inside my mother’s body. They fused and, could I have spoken, I would have been able to say: ‘I am’. That compound cell immediately began to take in nourishment, nutrients and chemicals. It became two cells, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, and on and on. That is what I call my body: this accumulation of nutrients, of chemicals that have built up over the years. That is what people see. That is what hides the real me, the self that is there all the time. I am not this body. Nor am I this mind – this stream of thoughts, memories, convictions, flooding through my consciousness like a river in spate. I was; before ever the first of them was conceived.

But what about my personality, that unique combination that distinguishes me from everyone else? It developed in the same way that my body developed. From the time I was born I have been subjected to outside influences. It is the accumulation of all those values, convictions, preiudices, standards, culture, priorities, habits, judgments and beliefs that I have acquired. This acquired personality, like that acquired mass of flesh and fat and tissue I call my body, is the screen, the veil that prevents the real self from shining through.

In the stillness, when the very awareness of this body gradually fades from my consciousness; in the stillness when the very breath of my being is no longer sensed, it is then by grace I may glimpse the light.

Concentration

The most common complaint of the would-be meditator must surely be: ‘I just can’t concentrate. My mind just won’t keep still. I always get so distracted.” in India they speak of the ‘monkey mind’. It’s not hard to see why. All this means is that you are a normal person with a normal mind – the very type of person for whom meditation is intended.

Let’s face the fact that the beginner must expect to be distracted. There are various reasons for this, one being that our ordinary lifestyle is distracted. Normally we are doing two or more things at once. We are reading the paper, but also sipping our coffee. We are walking along, but also looking into shop windows. We are studying hard, but also listening to our favourite music. We are having a meal, but also talking all the time. We are driving our car, but also listening to the radio. And we don’t for a moment think of ourselves as being distracted. Then we try to meditate. We tell the mind: ‘Now you must concentrate. just think about this and nothing else.’ The mind says: ‘Who? Me? I’ve never done that before. You’ve never shown me how to.’ We are normally distracted when doing other things. Why should it be different when meditating?

What we usually do is set the mind on one subject and try to keep it there. it’s hard and takes a lot of effort, which suggests that we are going about it the wrong way. Remember what we said about relaxation of effort? Now here we are, piling on the effort, and we are surprised that it doesn’t work.

What we should be doing is moving into stillness, smoothly and gradually. Not dumping ourselves into stillness, and expecting no splash. lt is far better to begin with distractions than to end up with them. Try letting them come and go without losing your temper; not trying to put them out of your mind, but letting them fly like birds in one window and out the other. It is better to spend half an hour with distractions and finally find some minutes of stillness, than to have it the other way round. With practice those minutes will increase more and more – and they’ll also start happening sooner.

Far from forcing the mind to be still, we have been giving it something to do, something to attend to. Posture awareness began with an active mind, checking feet, legs and the rest, ensuring that they were relaxed.

Posture awareness brings not only stillness but also relaxation and tranquillity to the body. Breath awareness does the same for the mind. We encourage it to use the energy surging inside it, but to use it in examining and observing the breathing process. A fully occupied mind has no room for distractions. it has enough to attend to as it is. Examining gives way to attending to, which drifts into just barely noticing.

It is commonly believed that our five senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching – are an endless source of distraction, and they can be. However, if handled correctly, they can become a positive means of maintaining awareness. We have chosen a subject for our meditation; we can use the senses to keep that subject vividly before our consciousness.

Sense Withdrawal
a solitary light of prayer

a solitary light of prayer

When our eyes close they are drawn away from the sight, the lights and colours, the forms and shapes, which are the usual objects of their attention. Withdrawal can be a negative word; we do not look. We want to understand it in a positive way; we do look. We keep on looking. But we are now looking at the vision within. We internalise our senses, gazing on the vision within, listening to the voice of the heart.

Actually the senses are like a bridge, linking the world outside us with the mind within. When we withdraw from that outer world we draw closer to the inner mind, hauling the drawbridge back into the castle, as it were. The first step towards internalisation is withdrawal of the senses – non-association with their respective objects.

When this occurs the senses can take on a new dimension. Normally they are quite restricted in their scope. I can see only so far; I can hear only what is noisy at this moment; taste only what is in my mouth; feel only what is near enough to touch. My senses are restricted to the here and now. My mind is not so limited. I can think of distant places, other scenes, other voices, other meals, other fabrics. I can remember them from the past, or look forward to enjoying them in the future. The mind is not restricted to the here and now. Such is its special character.

It is the same when the senses are internalised. In my imagination I can ‘see’ quite vividly that beautiful scene that pleased me so much. I can still ‘hear’ the music that affected me so. I have moved from the outer world of objects to the inner world of memories and imagination. No longer restricted to the here and now, my senses as it were resemble the mind in character.

In practice, sense withdrawal is not difficult. It is a very natural condition and far more common than we might realise. How often have we been absorbed in a book or a task, and quite oblivious of sounds around us? How often have we had to excuse ourselves: ‘Sorry! I must have been daydreaming. What was it you said?’ ‘Yes, he walked in here a few minutes ago. No, I didn’t notice what he was wearing! Of course, if I saw him walk in I saw what he was wearing, but it didn’t register. Our sense organs are continually being bombarded by stimuli, but unless the mind notices them they don’t register.

After five minutes of posture awareness our body has settled into such a state of stillness that it no longer intrudes upon our sense of touch. Our eyes have closed of their own accord, So the sense of sight is withdrawn. Lips are likewise closed; the sense of taste is at rest. We have chosen for our meditation a place free from perfumes, scents and odours. The only sense still operating is that of hearing. So we use it to take leave of the world around us. Begin by consciously listening to whatever sounds there are. As you pick up each one, realise that you are not interested in it, or that it will keep for the next half-hour or so, and then ignore it.

Your senses are now in a state of complete cooperation with your mind, Being themselves stilled, they will not interfere with the stillness. Simply sit and look with eyes closed. Some speak of looking into the darkness. Actually you are looking at the back of your eyelids; at home in a world of your own. Just accept what you see. There may be cloudy patterns of colour floating across your field of vision. Accept them. Let them change. Let them go. There may be flickers of light caused by vibrations in the optic nerve. In conditions of great stillness there may be just an unrelieved background of neutral colour.

Some meditators like to make positive use of the inward-turned senses. Before settling into meditation you should have decided on your subject: what you are going to meditate on. If it be a scene from the Gospels, or an incident, or some object, you may like to imagine a little video-screen there before your eyes. The screen lights up. The scene appears.

Or maybe you are to meditate on a word, a phrase. Listen and you hear it in your heart. Or it may be something such as a quotation you want to repeat, a thought you want to put into words. Speak those words into the stillness, over and over, ever more softly, ever more gently. Your senses, your mind are at one with each other. From this comes the most complete cooperation of the senses.

Concentration is bringing the mind to rest in one area

Patanjali in his teachings, puts before us an eight-point plan for yogic meditating: he calls them eight limbs. The first two, avoidances and observances, are concerned with a lifestyle conducive to meditation. The next three limbs, posture, breath awareness and sense withdrawal, he calls external limbs. They refer to bodily processes: the physical posture, physical breathing, physical senses. Now he moves on to the internal world of mind and spirit: concentration, meditation, contemplation.

Concentration he describes as an activity affecting the mind. The word is often translated as restricting, confining or fixing. These words however imply an idea of force, of hemming in, which is quite foreign to the relaxation which is so essential to the whole meditation process. I use the term bringing to rest. We bring the mind to rest on the subject we have chosen. We bring our mind to rest in one particular area.

Thus we bring the mind to rest. But what if the mind refuses to rest? Distractions are to be expected, as we have already said. They may come from our habitually distracted lifestyle, which we have not yet brought under control. They may also come from our subconscious mind. Everything we have ever experienced is recorded there, pleasant or unpleasant, acceptable or unacceptable. Normally, we keep the lid on, tightly clamped down. But in the relaxed state which is meditation, the restrictions are lifted, the lid is off, and much that we have kept repressed may surface in our consciousness.

Whatever the cause, we must realise that distractions are just thoughts trying to express themselves-especially if they have been repressed. We don’t try to put them out of our mind, that will only push them back down into the subconscious to await another opportunity to plague us. We just look the other way while they have their moment of freedom to flit around in our consciousness and then fly off into space.

An excellent aid to concentration is the use of a mantra. This is a word or a short phrase which we repeat over and over. What we are doing is giving our mind something to occupy its attention – a word or phrase that expresses our meditation subject.

We begin by repeating it in a very definite manner, with lips and breath and even sound. We proceed progressively more softly, progressively more gently, until we are not so much saying the words, but thinking them – still at the same rate, still with the same rhythm. Eventually, as our mind becomes more still, the mantra will begin to take on a life of its own. We are not so much repeating it as listening to it repeat itself in our heart. The mantra has moved from the lips to the mind to the heart.

Meditation is attentiveness to one idea

If meditation means thinking about something, aren’t we trying to do just the opposite? Aren’t we concerned with stilling all movement of the mind? Yes, we are, but the fact is, we don’t start with stillness. We work towards it. One respected school of meditators declares that ordinarily it takes the mind at least twenty minutes to achieve stillness. During that time the mind must be kept occupied, or it will fly off on all kinds of tangents and distractions. If the mind is not given some variety it becomes drowsy or distracted. The techniques we have been considering: posture awareness, breath awareness and the rest, are meant to occupy the mind while coaxing it into stillness.

We noticed a very clear-cut distinction between those techniques. Five minutes posture, five minutes breathing, then on to withdrawal. There is no such clear-cut distinction between these internal limbs. Concentration merges imperceptibly into meditation; meditation imperceptibly into contemplation. The process has been likened to a grazing goat tethered to a stake. The rope keeps it within a certain area – concentration. As the rope winds round the stake, that area becomes more restricted – meditation. Finally the goat is brought to a standstill – contemplation.

In concentration the mind was brought to rest on a subject. In meditation it browses around, considering the subject from this angle and that, until a special idea catches its attention. The mind now remains with this one aspect, considering it attentively. The mind, by this time very peaceful and serene, may simply contemplate it. Or it may express it in a mantra to be repeated ever more softly, ever more faintly. We just remain tranquilly with the idea, savouring it, becoming one with it, allowing the awareness to narrow to the point of stillness. We have stilled the mind. We have not emptied it. It is fully alert, filled with the glorious awareness of this vision within. Concentration brought our mind to rest on our subject.

Contemplation: the shining forth of the object alone, unimpeded by any natural form

We often still the body so that the senses may operate more efficiently. We still the senses so that the mind may function more effectively. We still the mind itself. What happens then? This enables another faculty to take over. We enter the realm of contemplation.

Normally the senses reveal to us the appearance of an object: what it looks like, feels like, sounds like, tastes and smells like. The mind goes further and tells us what the object really is, reveals its essence. I examine a gumtree and a wattle tree. They look different; feel different, one is rough, one is smooth; they smell different; if I chew the leaves they taste different; when the breeze rustles them they make different sounds. Yet my mind tells me each is a tree. They have the same essence.

Contemplation takes me beyond this essence to the reality itself, not to be sensed, not to be known, but to be experienced directly. This indeed is the very object alone, shining forth, stripped, unimpeded by its very essence or natural form, as it were.

Is this experience of contemplation possible for the beginner? The point is vigorously debated. I am quite convinced that it is possible, in the form of momentary flashes of enlightenment. Unfortunately, our most common reaction to them is: ‘Oh, this must be contemplation? Which means that the mind has got itself back into gear and has lost its stillness; so we are no longer in contemplation.

But we learn to live with the experience, just accepting, not trying to hold on to it, not trying to recapture or repeat it. Then we find it recurring on other occasions, occasions which become more frequent and more prolonged. Eventually they will merge into what may be called a state of contemplation. By that time you’ll no longer be a beginner, but quite advanced. We cannot make ourselves contemplate. All we can do is set the scene: by a lifestyle conducive to meditation; by a habit of complete involvement in the present moment; by regular, conscientious practice of our daily stillness session. Beyond that, anything we receive must be given to us.

These three constitute meditation

We have arrived at the very essence of Patanjali’s meditation technique. Concentration – meditation – contemplation is ultimately what it is all about. What I call contemplative prayer. This is what the external limbs and the internal limbs are meant to achieve, especially the latter. These last three are to be considered as one. We will notice that the more experienced we become, the more they run together as one, merging imperceptibly in the stillness. We think of them as one.

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A few practical points may be worth considering

• Do we go through this whole technique every time we meditate?

To the beginner I’d say: ‘Take it easy. Be kind to yourself! Begin with posture and posture awareness. You could spend all your meditation period in just this one process and you would find it restful, relaxing and rewarding. After some days, begin with posture, then move on to breathing awareness. Some time later you may move further on to sense withdrawal, spending the rest of your meditation period just looking at the back of your eyelids. There is plenty of time to approach the big three. They will be there when you are ready for them.

• How long should each session be?

No more than half an hour to begin with. Always remember at least five minutes posture awareness; at least five minutes breathing awareness; and then take leave of the world around you. Another five minutes or so to begin with; more if you’re comfortable with it. It should not take you long to move up to twenty minutes, making half an hour in all.

• How often should I meditate?

We are often told we use only a fraction of the energy we have, yet we finish the day exhausted. So much of our energy is unavailable, bottled up within us through poor work practice, a negative mentality, and, especially, tension. Meditation means relaxation, removing that stress and tension, and releasing the energy we need. Half an hour in the morning releases the energy we need for the day’s activities. Another half hour-ideally before the evening meal-releases the energy we need for the evening: working late, studying, socialising, and so on. Half an hour twice a day is better than a much longer session once a day.

Always remember: you are not the doer. You are the observer, the seer. You cannot make a bad meditation, because you are not making the meditation. Give your time, seek the stillness. When the stillness comes to you, all else will be given, right up to concentration – meditation – contemplation.

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Fr. Vyn Baily msc at the Douglas Park Ashram

Fr. Vyn Baily msc at the Douglas Park Ashram

Fr. Vyn Bailey msc celebrating Eucharist at the Ashram.
From his many years of experience and practice, studying sanskrit and yoga in India, and teaching meditation based on the yoga sutras of Patanjali, Fr. Vyn authored a book, Patanjali’s Meditation Yoga., Translation and Commentary by Vyn Bailey. (Simon & Schuster, Australia, 1997. Viacom International, Sydney.)

The book is no longer in print or copies available from the publishers and one has to be quite blessed to come across a copy.

The best place to enquire is from Chris Chaplin msc or at St. Mary’s Towers, Douglas Park, where Fr. Vyn dedicated many of the latter years of his life to those thirsting for contemplation, and where he penned this beautiful little work.