Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Recently, I read an assertion that stuck firmly in my mind. I have forgotten its source. I apologize for not being able to cite its author. If anyone can source it, please let me know. Here it is:
"Many Christians pray for an experience rather than just to be with God."
I might assert:
"Many meditators pursue an experience rather than just to BE."
I admit to doing exactly that briefly, early in my meditative practice. However, looking back to my initial realization, I forcibly awakened to an urgent need to center myself, re-establish equilibrium, find and embrace stillness: To meditate was a much more practical and useful act than seeking some spiritual epiphany.
Without explaining too much, I took up meditating in my 26th year when I perceived my life had fallen apart—at least the life that I'd perceived I'd planned and was due. I hung off the proverbial high, sheer cliff by my emotional fingernails. In the sense of an old Zen story, I couldn't climb to safety, and I couldn't let go. I could do naught but vibrate with uncontrollable neurotic energy and lay balled up on my small apartment floor, which I would vacate at the end of the month.
The cliff's edge was the possibility of complete emotional disintegration. I manifested a mighty exhausting fear; fear at failure, fear of the present, fear of not just an unknown future, but NO future! Looking back, I know now it was the irrationality of an inexperienced overwrought young man, destined to live at least 48 more years (so far). However, feeling deeply back into those experiences, it was all indeed enormously overwhelming, physically damaging, and psychologically dangerous.
I had no television. It was well before computers and the Internet were as common as today. I had lost my job. My funds were quickly running out. I had no connection with any religious/spiritual tradition or group. But, within my small collection of books, there were three that discussed meditative practice. 20th-century German writer Herman Hesse authored two of them: Siddhartha, a very slim volume, was Hesse's take on the historical Buddha's life. The Glass Bead Game, a literary brick, was a sweeping allegory of a mythical mystical quasi-spiritual priestly order focused on an incredibly complex mind game synthesizing human existence. Meditative practice, the particulars of which are only vaguely defined, is a primary pursuit of their order. Hesse creates an attractive picture of contemplative practice while at the same time highlighting the pitfalls of becoming too spiritually hifalutin,' too quietistic, too detached from ordinary existence. I couldn't tackle that book until I calmed down a fair bit.
So, in-between, I embraced a focusing practice I found in an early pamphlet by Richard Hittleman on the practice of yoga. I sat as still as I could manage, gazed at a candle flame, closed my eyes, and attempted to retain its image in my mind for as long as my concentration, or lack of it, allowed (rinse and repeat, as they say). Hours upon hours, I pursued the practice.
That simple practice enabled me to claw back some sense of control, some equilibrium. Slowly—very slowly—I could breathe again and sleep a bit and perceive and interact anew with the world outside myself. Eventually, I found I could release from the cliff and not die. Indeed, my disintegration and subsequent release manifested a brand new beginning of the rest of my life.
I came to know many years later that focusing on retaining the image of a candle flame, simple as the technique is, sources back at least to the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, a manual of 112 meditative techniques. The document is a 2,000-plus-year-old Kashmiri text that predates Buddhism, Hinduism, and most contemporary religions.
I kept at meditation, trying different methods. With no teacher, no congregation, I used printed instructions so-to-speak from whatever instruction I could find. After a few years, I settled into a reasonably stable, pretty traditional silent sitting-based meditative practice.
Sixteen or so years after letting go, I landed softly and formally affiliated with the American branch of Soto Zen Buddhism. But, I continue to practice, recommend, and teach other methods of the ancient 112.
Soto Zen Buddhism doesn't accord much importance to experiences arising out of meditation. They are significant so far as—in conventional terms—they plot a path forward, but only that. In my practice, an experience is interesting, useful, but do not overrate its significance.
An experience, such as the cliff I described earlier, is like Yogi Berra's famous "fork in the road." When you come to it, TAKE IT! The joke is evident in the puzzle—which, what, where, etc.?
The spiritual fork—the experience—may be helpful or hindering, or not important at all, depending upon how one works with it. Exaggerating the significance of a spiritual experience, basking in it, or believing it the end-all, the destination, the spiritual brass ring may—as my Christian friends sometimes say— elicit overconfidence, arrogance and cause one to stink of holiness, or even backslide. Our meditative experience needs to be dealt with through contemplative practice, just like everything else the mind produces. Let it come. Let it go. A favorite expression of reflective attitude from Sokeian Sasaki recommends:
"Those who come are received; those who go are not pursued."
Think of THOSE, individual thoughts, experiences, emotions as brightly lit windows of a night train passing car after car in our mind, engaging, entertaining, but ultimately fleeting. Likely more will appear and disappear then again, maybe not. Neither outcome is of any consequence.
Finally, a spiritual experience should motivate one to settle quite more seriously to the labor at hand. Once one knows more, more responsibility is required.
For the meditator, rest with the Ultimate, in stillness and activity. For the Christian, rest with God in quiet and activity.
Buddhist and Christian: Attend to little stuff. Right action, right speech, right work, right . . . The big stuff is in far more expansive and capable hands.