Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

In the between

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

It occurred to me today, thinking about relationality, that the reason it is necessary to get the attention away from thoughts is so that the mind becomes empty and focused on nothing (this is not the same as not being focused). I relate to my thoughts. My emotions are exercised. I become involved. Therefore there is a need to disengage from all that is relative so that I may focus on the Absolute. The Absolute, though, is not there to be focused upon.

Relating to a person is easy. We do it instinctively. In a meaningful relationship more is communicated than that which is seen or heard. Although the communication is in the seeing, the look, it is not itself what is seen. It is, rather, in the feeling, the emotion and the meaning of the emotion – love, anger, guilt, fear, anguish – which is communicated. It is mutuality, each participating in the being of the other – what the Japanese call aidagara, betweenness. Another word they use is basho, place, locus. This relationship is the ‘place’ where I am located. It is not in me, nor outside me, but in the between of the other and me. Hence the difficulty with God. There is no seen or felt God. There may have been experiences in the past, numinous and otherwise, but they were nearly always fleeting irruptions, momentary glimmers in the all-pervading darkness. There may too have been, at times, a sense of presence, more an intuition than a feeling and, at other times, a sense of belonging, kinship, of being part of a no longer alien world. These were times when cracks appeared in the enclosing walls of the self. But most of the time there is simply this dull lump of a self, bereft of the finer emotions and heavy with inertia. The only option is to leave the self on one side, to focus the mind on nothing – not self, not thoughts, not emotions or feelings, simply on the breath and the mantra until they disappear and there is nothing. Sometimes this absence of anything becomes a vast and empty nothingness which is like going home. This is the aidagara, the locus of the relationship with Absolute Nothingness.


Thursday, January 31st, 2008

The feeling of being lost, of being adrift without oars and out of sight of land, persists. Meditation is, when it is not a struggle with distracting thoughts, simply being there – which raises the question of what it means to be. To be with people – fine; to be doing something constructive – fine; to be engaged on a project – all fine; but just to be, poised before – what? God? He is not an object of experience and I am wary now of making assumptions – even assumptions disguised as acts of faith. Poised before nothing. Eckhart would approve I think. But this ‘nothing’ has a way of leaching determination out of the will, of deflating courage and of knocking the props out from under endurance. Hence I feel deflated, dégonflé, crevé, épuisé. (Why are the French words more expressive than the English. Perhaps it is something to do with the lingering, falling last syllable.) There remains only hope that sometime the darkness will give way.

Sitting in the dark

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

It seems that in some ways my brain is getting duller. I am less well able to concentrate for prolonged periods of time on philosophical questions. This is not too disheartening though because I am more and more convinced that the answers I am seeking will be found through experience and not through reading and thinking. I am in any case put off by the academic predilection for discussing obscure and often controversial ideas in mind-numbing detail with endless qualifications of qualifications.

I feel like a new born baby that has not learned to open its eyes. I twist and turn, stretch and grope in the darkness. All the while I am surrounded by wonder and beauty. Opening the eyes is such a simple action. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it and the world is there in all its immediacy and splendour. But I can’t do it. I don’t even know whether it is in my power to do it. And so I close my eyes, my actual eyes, and sit in the darkness of the existential now and hope that something will happen. But nothing does. It is difficult to hold oneself there. Distractions and feelings keep intervening and drag the attention away and the empirical self wants only to respond to the emotive promptings of the body, its various social relationships and preoccupations. It is not surprising that contemplatives crave solitude. Unless one has had the graces of a Bernadette Roberts, living in what she calls the marketplace and contemplation do not go together. And yet there is something that drives me on. There is something that is happening at an unconscious level. This is not anything that I am aware of. It is just a conviction, a belief, but where that belief comes from I have no idea.


Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The prison of the empirical self is all encompassing. Again and again in meditation one is thrown back into the endo-cosmos of imaginings and fantasies. Holding the focus of attention in the detached awareness of the sitting, breathing body is like trying to get the little ball-bearings into the eyes of one of those childhood toys. Again and again they roll down, failing to find the precise point of balance. In any one session of meditation one can achieve a few moments, seconds, of being in the existential now. The centre of gravity is not there but in the discursive mind. The imperative to spend more and more time in meditation becomes ever greater. Even then there is no guarantee that one will pierce the all-enveloping weight of this empirical now. I never really understood the meaning of ‘God is dead,’ until now.

And yet I feel that this is the greatest adventure. Everyone is trapped in this empirical now – or in their private endo-cosmos. We comfort ourselves with religion and rehearse the ancient rituals, especially at this time of the year when the cold of poverty and helplessness is translated into the vision of a divine baby. The myths and rituals of faith may carry us a long way but eventually they will have to be discarded, leaving us with a blind and naked – and seemingly impossible – belief in our transcendence and the reality of God.


Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Thinking about limits. There is a difference between the natural limits of which we are all aware – I can run for so fast and for so long; I can lift just so much, etc. – and the limits experienced in the existential now. The trouble with my meditation at present is that I rarely seem to be able to get into the existential now. It requires a real effort of concentration, but even that isn’t enough. There is something more, something I do not possess and which I have to wait for. Sometimes it comes. More usually it doesn’t. It is a stillness, a suspension and an abandonment of everything so that there exists only this conscious awareness. It is a shift into the space between the phenomenal worlds 2, 3 and the Void. The phenomenal self hovers on the verge of awareness, accessible by a flicker of thought. Somehow there is a sense of perspective, an awareness of being suspended. Except for this flicker of thought there is absolute nothingness. The first time I felt terror. To go into the void would mean death. Immediately I was back in the phenomenal world thinking about what I had experienced. Somehow I know, how I know not, that there is nothing to fear.


Monday, December 17th, 2007

Meditation is not easy. The inner dialogue rarely stops. On rare occasions there is just awareness for a moment or two. The interlocutor is always there in the background observing, asking, making mental notes. I can understand why the Vipassana meditation retreats insist that retreatants should bring no books or writing materials. Reasoning, questioning, speculating, reflecting has no place here.

While all this is very frustrating during meditation, outside that time I am not downhearted. I do not feel detached from God. The meaning of transcendence is that He is beyond all our perceptions and experience. If He were attainable by means of physical and mental procedures He would not be transcendent. I think of meditation as trying to be in the existential now. God does not exist in what Popper calls Worlds 2 and 3. He is not part of the psychological world of our consciousness, a concept, an image, a dream or a fantasy. Nor is he a human construct, a statue, a ritual, a piece of bread, a story, or a myth. God is none of these. In the existential now one leaves aside the elaborate structures of human devising and imagination and stands poised in the mystery of being, the ebb and flow of the breath reflecting the systole and dystole of life itself. There are no words here, only silence; no light, only darkness. The existential now is the negation of self. Self is alone, naked and defenceless. It has nothing to cling to, nowhere to shelter, no one to turn to. It deflates, shrinking to nothing. This is why the self finds it so hard to bear, why the interlocutor keeps intruding with comments and observations. Anything to break the silence and lighten the darkness. Anything to keep it from extinction. But the self has to die, disappear into this dark now.


Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Some structure is necessary. The morning meditation begins the day well and puts everything in perspective. Sometimes the meditation has gone well and the mood it generates pervades the morning. Sometimes it goes badly. On the worst days it becomes impossible and the mind is like a Mexican jumping bean, unable to be still for a moment. Moods are important. Worry and anxiety are destructive and make stillness almost impossible. These are surface moods concerned with practical and material things, like money, or a leaking roof, or the boy’s activities, or is anyone ever going to buy our house. Suffering and anguish are helpful because these are deep moods and open up existential depths. They put everything in perspective and material anxieties are seen for the relatively inconsequential things that they are. Moods are important in setting the tone. They underline the meaning and significance of the moment and, to a great extent, determine what and how situations will be approached. But since they are also ephemeral, constantly shifting and changing, not just from day to day, but from moment to moment, they make a consistent spiritual life very difficult.

In the ordinary world of work moods can more easily be dealt with. The task in hand assumes an overriding importance.  Children have to be fed, got to school, work has to be prepared, meetings attended etc. One is forced one to put self and feelings on one side and distance the mind from them. The occasional periods of meditation then become a welcome escape to an oasis of calm, peaceful tranquillity. Because these moments are breaks in a very different routine they lack a sense of progression. The routine sets the tone and the pace. The breaks in it are just momentary interludes, each one unique, a new beginning. It is when one tries to integrate the two by meditating regularly every day that the difficulty arises. Then the volatile moods and feelings generated by the routine world intrude into the interludes of meditation. Because during meditation there is no demanding task in hand to occupy the attention the moods and feelings take on a commanding dominance. Faithful adherence to the techniques of meditation – saying the mantra, counting the breaths, etc., can cope with them during meditation and distance them to a certain extent. But once the period of meditation is over mindfulness becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

In the framework of the monastic enclosure and the Rule, dealing with the roller coaster ride of moods and feelings is not quite such a problem. The routine of Divine Office, work and lectio divina, by its very monotony and the very restricted variety of situations it provides, can have the opposite effect and generate a numbing and all-pervading mood of accidie, a problem that greatly exercised the ancient monks. I suspect that the root of this was a preoccupation with self. Much of Christian spirituality is bedevilled by an obsession with attaining an idealised self, pure and unblemished, an ethereal being with no trace of carnality. 

My problem is neither of these. As I am retired I can order my day pretty much as I please. Family life makes demands, especially during the holidays, but these are not problems. My problem is myself. How do I maintain mindfulness throughout the day?

 A thought struck me – that the key is doing good. It is not enough spending hours in payer and meditation. Solitude and the eremitical life, however much they may appeal to some, are not the natural state of man. It is relationships which make us. Love is creative and life giving, literally. It is in the outpouring of love to others that we become most fully what we are meant to be. ‘God became man so that man might become God,’ Athanasius said. God is self-emptying love. There is so much contained in the ideas love, kenosis, sunyata, and developing it is not something that can be done just through philosophical analysis. It has to be lived. 


Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Meditation is not easy. As Yves Raguin puts it, ‘The way of immanence is always a dark way.’ After a few minutes of saying the Jesus Prayer I simply count breaths. I count up to nine and then start again. This helps keep me alert because the natural impulse is to go on counting and it requires a little mindfulness to remember to start again after nine. It is difficult to remain focused for more than a minute to a minute and a half. This is slowly improving. Simple, bare attention is not a natural state unless the will is totally focused. The mental chatter, ideas, images, feelings etc. goes on ceaselessly. Habituation quickly sets in and attention to counting, breathing and awareness of the body is soon distracted.

The trouble is that bare attention is not dramatic. There is no excitement, no colour, beauty, or wonder. Attention craves novelty. Once it has exhausted everything within its field it relaxes and becomes prey to the next idea, image, or feeling that emerges. And yet bare attention is the key. The one thing which separates us from reality is the mind. We live in this mental world of our constructing. Physically we are present to our environment and to the others who may be in it with us. Mentally though, as often as not, we are present only to our mental world, caught up in ideas, imaginary conversations, fantasies, day dreams. Every teacher and public speaker is aware of the difficulty of commanding the attention of others. They may be physically present but, as often as not, they are not always present to the speaker. How often we walk without noticing our surroundings. lost in thought. It follows that if it is our mental world which separates us from our environment and from others it also separates us from God, from awareness of the transcendent and even from awareness of ourselves. We fail to become aware, as Tillich puts it, that ‘the finite world points beyond itself.’

 Bare attention may be boring after a little while but it is here where we are immediately in touch with reality and with God. We have become so habituated to the mode of our mental world that we are unable to appreciate the richness of reality. It is because of this attention to now, to the context of this moment, that the practitioners of Zen are so intensely conscious of nature and of the existential significance of the tiniest details – as Basho noted all those years ago. 

Depths and depths

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

 The thing about meditation, one of the reasons why it is not so boring sometimes, is that it is all about disconnecting all relationships. Even though one is alone, the mind still dwells on personal relationships – those that matter. It worries at them, speculates, invents scenarios. When this is stopped by focusing, it feels bored. Nothing important is going on – importance is conveyed by the emotive content of the relationship foremost in the mind. Once attention is relaxed, because nothing important is going on, the unconscious takes over and either generates a new series of internal dialogues, or hypnogogic episodes. Some of these are really strange. They seem to come from nowhere – certainly not invented by the imagination. They have a quality of otherness, strangeness, about them.

It struck me that anatta is awareness with all relationships put aside. It is relationships which make the self. Each relationship evokes a different self. Once all relationships are put aside there remains only the observer, awareness of sensations, waiting for thoughts to emerge. It wonders where they come from. Relationship to thoughts. Stop thinking. Focus. Just awareness. There are depths and depths. Anticipation. To go into the still depths.


Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

It is not books I need now but experience, the experience of meditation and insight – leading, hopefully, to … I don’t know. Understanding , certainly. Fulfilment hopefully. Anyone can read and amass information. But this knowledge is conceptual and second hand. At best concepts are deductions based on interpretations of direct experience. At worst they are constructs based on anything from imagination to wishful thinking. It is easy to be tempted by these last. They can be warm and comfortable, pandering to the need for reassurance and security. The way of meditation is very lonely and very austere. The other evening I was listening to Gregorian chant while working at the computer. It always transports me back to my days as a monk. I was overcome with a nostalgia, more,  with a longing for the spirituality of the monastery. The Office of Compline is particularly soothing and comforting. In the dark old church the monks gather round the sanctuary lit by the warm light of candles. The beautiful old melodies of the plainchant invoke the protection of God, the Virgin and the saints. None of the terrors of darkness or of the night may penetrate here. Here there is the presence of Christ in a community and fellowship and love. As an individual I am supported and upheld by my membership of the community, by my baptism – making me a child of God – by the presence of Christ. All that is required of me is fidelity to my vows. 

In contrast the way of meditation is very lonely and austere. There are no warm flickering candles, only the all-enveloping darkness. There is no community, but the solitary counter of breaths. There is no reassurance, no God, no Christ only the agonising urge to know. There is also faith – belief that reality is not just this compendium of sensations – and a commitment to persevere. And that is all. Doubt surrounds on every side. Sensations of discomfort, or sleepiness intrude. Waking dreams and hypnagogic fantasies weave their mental tapestries. Hope flickers and gutters dimly in the all-enveloping darkness.