“Priests of stillness”—on first learning meditation from fenceposts along the Essex coast

Fenceposts (“priests of stillness”) standing alongside Kirby Creek, Essex, in the summer of 2020 (click to enlarge)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation.


As many of you will know, this coming week, the church where I am minister is to host a two-day event on mindfulness being offered by a number of Zen Buddhist monastics from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community in France. And then, the following week, my own meditation teacher, a Higashi-Hongan-ji, Jodo Shinshu priest now living in New York, Miki Nakura sensei, will be visiting me, and he has kindly offered to introduce Seiza meditation — that is to say, “quiet sitting” — to anyone interested. Given that the church where I am minister stands in the Unitarian tradition, I think it’s worth knowing that Seiza meditation, developed by Okada Torajiro (1872-1920) in the early twentieth century, was the meditation practice that became central to many of the major figures involved in the Japanese yunitarian (sic) movement.

Anyway, I’m fairly certain that events and visits like these are beginning to happen thanks to our community’s decision, made during the pandemic, to bring into the heart of our main morning service a mindful meditation practice and liturgy taken wholesale from our old evening service.

As this process has unfolded for us, I have come to realize that in some people’s minds, when they think about meditation, it’s very easy to get caught up with the idea that it’s somehow an inherently East Asian thing and, therefore, something exotic, and even alien. But that’s simply not true, because the basic process of becoming still so as to become better aware of the world around us, then to pay better attention to it and, in turn, to become ever more mindful of what this better awareness and attention can mean for our way of being-in-the-world, this is something genuinely universal. The truth is that meditation practices of one kind or another, whether formally or informally expressed, have arisen across the world, everywhere, throughout human history, and in many religious and philosophical traditions.

However, it was only a few years ago that a poem by the American poet, philosopher and psychotherapist, Gary Whited suddenly helped me see that the deep roots of my own later interest in, and practice of, both mindful meditation and Seiza meditation, lay, not in Japan, but in the East Anglian coastal landscape where I grew up.

But let me start a long way away from either Japan or East Anglia, with Gary Whited, who grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana. After leaving school, Whited went on to study philosophy at the University of Montana with one of my own heroes, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), he received his PhD from Penn State University in 1973 and, following this, he taught philosophy at various universities, including the University of Montana, the University of Texas-Austin, and Emerson College. During this time he developed a deep interest in the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Parmenides, which eventually led him to become a psychotherapist. For Whited, a key link between pre-Socratic philosophy and psychotherapy is the art of listening, something he first learned out on the Montana prairies, as his short poem, “To Fencepost,” beautifully reveals:

It knew my breath
and knew my cheek.
It was yesterday,

a long time ago,
when I stood alone
next to any old fencepost

and waited before I knew
I was beginning
a practice of listening to what stands still

a long time.
Today, standing anyplace,
that yearning might come

for a way in
to where fenceposts stay without ceasing,
each one a priest of stillness.

Any day this is so—
on a hillside where wind trembles the grass
stands a quiet gray weathered post,

crust of golden lichen
on the shadowed side.

(From “Having Listened,” Homebound Publications, 2013, p. 5. This poem can also be viewed HERE)

Now, I do not know the Montana prairies, but I do intimately know about standing alone “next to any old fencepost.” This is because, as a teenager growing up in the late 1970s and early 80s, I would often walk along the isolated footpaths that run beside the coastal backwaters lying to the north, east and south of my home village of Kirby-le-Soken in Essex. In such a wide-open and flat landscape, fenceposts become the obvious places beside which to pause, rest, think, read, and eat one’s packed-lunch. Leaning against them, letting them know my own breath and cheek, I would spend many hours in their company looking out across the creeks and marshes simply watching the play of clouds, water, birds and light, all whilst simultaneously listening to the sound of the wind in the reeds and bulrushes, the calls of oystercatchers and skylarks, the distant clank of halyards against masts of boats moored in the creeks and, of course, the never-ending sound of the water as it came in and went out with each tide.

But it was only when I read Whited’s poem many years later, that I suddenly saw that those fenceposts had been for me priests of stillness, in other words, they were my first teachers of mindful meditation and quiet sitting or, indeed, quiet standing. Thinking back to those walks I realized that the humble, still presences of those fenceposts, with their beautiful robes of golden lichen glowing on the shadowed side, again and again, successfully brought me to my own stillness from out of which I was slowly able to become aware of, pay attention to, and become mindful of the wondrous, eternal, intra-acting fluxes, flows and folds of the world’s movement everywhere around and within me. In retrospect, I think I regularly sought out the company of these priests of stillness because — to borrow an insight from Whited’s teacher, Henry Bugbee — although at the time I would have been at a complete loss to say what precisely it was that I was being taught, I somehow knew they were “instructing me for life.”

I think that this was because, like most teenagers, my view of the world felt chaotic, shaped, as it inevitably was, by hormone driven emotions, worries, anxieties, fears and hopes, endless thoughts about everything. Everything moved so fast and confusedly that it was extremely hard to become aware of, pay attention to, and be mindful of anything for more than a few, fleeting seconds. But, when I stood next to those fenceposts, those priests of stillness, I found again and again — as I say each week in the mindful meditation — I was able to experience “a little stillness, some acceptance.” And that, I have found, has made all the difference.

Forty plus years later, and having listened long to these priests’ silent teaching, I find, to cite Whited again, that “today, standing anyplace,” even when no priest of stillness is close by, I am able, just for a while, to find a way back to the place “where fenceposts stay without ceasing.” And for this graceful gift, I know I will always be grateful.

So, although it is true that in recent years the priests of stillness who have helped me most with my own formal practice of meditation have been East Asian, Buddhist ones, I find it helpful and important to remember that my first teachers of this practice were those East Anglian fenceposts found along the edge of the Essex backwaters, members of a global, non-sectarian religious fellowship whose robes are made of golden lichen. Why not seek one out today? It may make all the difference to your own way of being-in-the-world.