It requires some strength to be imprisoned for decades for standing up against a ruthless enemy and still keep your basic integrity and humanity intact. Nelson Mandela not only got the Nobel Peace Prize, but has become an icon of these qualities, recently exemplified during the visit of Michelle Obama and her daughters. In his recently published collection of letters, diary notes and other notes over the decades in prison, the following excerpt from a letter to his then wife Winnie, who was also imprisoned, has found its way to one of the front pages of the book:
… the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.
In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes.
At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features of your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.
Mandela is talking about a thematically oriented and untechnical form of meditation, unlike Acem Meditation or other modern techniques. But in addition to the confirmation of the value of meditation as such, it is worth noting that in contrast to the typical New Age approach to meditation, which states that “the sky is the limit” and stimulates our grandiose fantasies, Mandela stresses instead the importance of recognising one’s mistakes, not in a punitive way, but in a way that “may yield rich rewards”.
Mandela reminds me of Confucius’ disciple Zengzi, who said: “Every day I examine myself on three accounts: Have I been illoyal in my work for others? Have I been untrustworthy in my interaction with friends? Have I failed to put into practice the teachings that have been handed down to me?” A long time ago (5th century BC), and in another part of the world, but still maybe basically the same.
Note the emphasis on regularity in both quotations.