On Meditation and Prayer: How to Depart and Bewholed (7.1.08)
“I'd also like to hear your thoughts on the contrast between traditional Christian meditation and the 'Eastern' types of meditation.”
In fact, yesterday I received an email from another reader with a similar question, who asked about a book entitled The Power of Focusing (which I have never heard of). “My question to you is whether you've heard of ‘focusing,’ whether you have any experience with it, and if you would recommend a person in search of the Truth to give it a try?”
In my view, there is nothing magical about meditation per se. I myself practiced it for many years without really getting anywhere, and I am sure this is true of many spiritual seekers, especially those drawn toward Buddhism. Many irreligious or anti-religious Westerners are looking for what they regard as a “rational” alternative to religion, so they turn to things like Zen, which is largely an atheological psycho-spiritual technology. Ultimately I found Zen and similar "bare witnessing" approaches to be rather dry, although there are obviously many wise and lovely aspects to Buddhism--it's just a matter of personal choice, or one's dharma, to quote a buddha-ism. (I also have a lot of problems with what I regard as the immoral non-violence of Buddhism, but that’s another subject.)
According to one of a handful of authorities I turn to in these matters, Frithjof Schuon, “meditation cannot of itself provoke illumination; rather, its object is negative in the sense that it has to remove inner obstacles that stand in the way, not of a new, but of a preexistent and ‘innate’ knowledge of which it has to become aware. Thus meditation may be compared not so much to a light kindled in a dark room, as to an opening made in the wall of that room to allow the light to enter--a light which preexists outside and is in no way produced by the action of piercing the wall.... The role of meditation is thus to open the soul, firstly to the grace which separates it from the world, secondly to that which brings it nearer to God and thirdly to that which, so to speak, reintegrates it into God.”
I find this to be a most adequate description, because it is in accord with my own personal experience and with another one of my nonlocal authorities, Sri Aurobindo. (Yes, I know, Schuon would have a lot of problems with Sri Aurobindo, who was not a strict traditionalist, but that’s between the two of them.) For Aurobindo, the only purpose of meditation is to silence the lower mind or “frontal” personality in order to make an opening in what he calls the “psychic being.” For our purposes, we may think of the psychic being simply as the vertical self that is both “deeper” and “higher” than the ordinary, worldly, conditioned ego.
In short, as I tried to get across on pp. 219-224 of One Cosmos, the dual purpose of meditation is to 1) achieve stillness or mental silence, and 2) to maintain openness, surrender, or self-offering. I specifically define “faith” as a sort of “expectant silence,” as we do our part to make ourselves a receptacle for a power or grace that transcends us. We are literally attempting to make contact with the spiritual world (or person), which always engenders an influx of forces. Again, the important point is not the meditation--which is only a means--but preparing ourselves for the subtle energy of grace.
Depending on various personal factors, the grace appears in different guises. For some it will be more of a higher emotional experience, for others, awareness of the sacred. For some it will simply manifest as an unaccountable change in personality, for others, newfound abilities or a deeper understanding of spiritual matters. It is not at all uncommon to actually feel this energy, often in the heart region or above the head. In fact, tantric yoga attempts to commandeer this energy and “take heaven by storm,” so to speak, which I would not recommend. Occasionally things can get out of hand.
Schuon is again exceptionally clear when he writes that “the contact between man and God [in meditation] becomes contact between the intelligence [he is referring here to the higher mind] and Truth, or relative truths contemplated in view of the Absolute.... Meditation acts on the one hand upon the intelligence, in which it awakens certain consubstantial ‘memories,’ and on the other hand upon the subconscious imagination which ends by incorporating in itself the truths meditated upon, resulting in a fundamental and as it were organic process of persuasion.”
This, I believe, accounts for what Dilys has called the “draining the swamp” aspect of true meditation and prayer--why it not only opens us to the higher, but has the practical effect of “deconditioning” the lower mind as well. This is again why I am not a big fan of “empty” meditation of the Zen variety (and I should reemphasize that I’m only talking about myself here, and what has worked for me. I’m not knocking Buddhism. In fact, I would be happy to hear testimony from any Buddhists out there who can balance out my perspective.)
Another point to consider is that meditation is only an “exercise” or an adjunct to the spiritual life. It cannot be its purpose or end. Just as exercise has the purpose of making the body more healthy in general--not just while one is exercising--meditation is something that should carry over into one’s moment to moment life. In other words, in so far as it is possible, we should make the effort throughout the day to live in that silent and open state, in which we are not so involved with the ceaseless barrage of mechanical chatter and internal propaganda coming from the lower mind. Most of these "thoughts" are probably coming from mind parasites anyway.
This is why I am so drawn to Orthodox Christianity, because it really emphasizes everything we have been discussing above. Another of my authorities, St. Theophan the Recluse, writes of how the lower mind is entangled with the world like an opium addict. It cannot get enough of what it really doesn’t need: ”There is a lot of motion, but no life.” And “the reason there is no life in such a life is that it does not occupy and nourish all the aspects of human life, but only a small portion of it. And this small portion stands in last place, not even touching the center of human life.”
St. Theophan writes that “within each person is a spirit, the highest aspect of human life. It is the force that draws that person from the visible to the invisible, from the temporal to the eternal, from the creation to the Creator.”
Writing of the ego, or frontal personality, St. Theophan notes that we might think that someone is “deep in thought.” But “in reality, he is deep in emptiness.... Observe yourself, and you will see that the greater part of our time is spent on such empty and straying thought. Some days, not a single substantial thought enters the mind.”
Not a single substantial thought. How true. This can actually happen to an entire lifetime--much more often than you might think. But here again, this is why I believe it is so important to have a religious framework for one’s “thinking.” As I have had occasion to mention many times in the past, the very purpose of an authentic, revealed religion is to be able to think about the otherwise unthinkable. Through meditation, concentration and prayer, we may take this thinking deeper and deeper--or higher and higher--into the vertical. Put it his way: religions are vertical languages that go hand in hand with the horizontal language of math and science. Evolution is the evolution of both.
St. Theophan’s specific advice regarding meditation and prayer is to think of it as the state of standing before God with the mind in the heart. Body, soul, and spirit all have their own special ways of knowing, and this is the way to know God, as opposed to “knowing about” God with the mind. Another Orthodox text simply says to “establish peace and recollection within yourself and ask for the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost.” St. Theophan says it is “simple: it is prayer--children talking to their Father, without any subtleties...”
And one more thing: don’t look for immediate “results.” Rather, just do it for its own sake. Just make it a routine part of your life, like exercising or brushing your teeth. In my case, I’ve hardly missed some sort of physical workout a single day in my adult life. One has to adopt the same attitude as it pertains to exercising the Spirit. It’s the least you can do to devote at least 15 or 20 minutes a day to turning your mind to higher things, so that higher things may turn to you.
Meditation / Concentration / Prayer: These three words epitomize the spiritual life, while at the same time indicating its principal modes. Meditation, from our standpoint, is an activity of the intelligence in view of understanding universal truths; concentration, for its part, is an activity of the will in view of assimilating these truths or realities existentially, as it were; and prayer in its turn is an activity of the soul directed towards God. --Fritjhof Schuon
One more thing--as a general text on meditation I can actually recommend Meditation for Dummies. It really covers the waterfront, and isn't for dummies at all. (This is proven by the reviewer who complains that the book contains "too much filosophy.")