Meditate! For What?

Recently, I ran across an assertion that has stuck firmly in my mind since, even as 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 with the Ultimate."

I admit to doing EXACTLY THAT briefly, early in my meditative practice. However, looking back to my initial realization, forcibly awakened to an urgent need to center myself, to re-establish equilibrium, to find and embrace stillness: To meditate was a much more practical and utilitarian 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—and I was hanging off the proverbial high, sheer cliff, by my emotional fingernails. In the sense of the old Zen proverb, I couldn't climb back up to safety and I couldn't let go. I was paralyzed, yet vibrating with neurotic uncontrollable energy, and quite literally balled up on the floor of my tiny apartment, from which I would be forced to 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. This is well before personal computers and the Internet was as common as today. I had lost my job. My funds were quickly running out. I was not connected 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 life of the historical Buddha. The Glass Bead Game, a literary brick, was a sweeping allegory of a mythical mystical quasi-spiritual priestly order focused on a fantastically 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 popular 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 again 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 thought to be a more than 2,000-year-old Kashmiri text that predates Buddhism, Hinduism, and most of our contemporary religions.

I kept at meditation, trying different methods until I quite naturally with no teacher, no congregation, using just printed instructions so-to-speak from what I read, settled into what I came to find out was a pretty solid, 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 important in so far as—in conventional terms—they plot a path forward, but only that. In my practice, an experience is interesting, useful, but its significance is not to be overly emphasized.

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 obvious in the conundrum—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 meditative practice just like everything else the mind produces. Let it come. Let it go. A favorite expression of meditative 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, interesting, entertaining, but ultimately just passing. Likely more will pass, then again: maybe not. Neither outcome is of any consequence.

Finally, a spiritual experience is a sign of harder work, more dedication, motivation to settle quite more seriously to the labor at hand. Once one knows more, more responsibility is demanded of oneself.

For the meditator, just rest in the Ultimate, in stillness and activity. For the Christian, just rest with God, in stillness 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.

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