On Meditation

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Let the seeker quietly lead the mind into the Spirit, and let all his thoughts be silence.
(Bhagavad Gita 6:25)

The word ‘meditation’ has a number of different meanings and the dominant meaning has changed over time. For the sake of brevity I shall ignore all these complexities and concentrate on the technique which Krishna has described in the Gita. One of my reasons for doing so is that in broad outline, this method can be found not only in the Eastern traditions of Vedanta and Buddhism but also in Western Catholicism (where it is known as contemplative prayer) and Christian Orthodoxy (where it is known as hesychasm.)

I will note here that these four traditions are also religions and that the primary intention in each case is not therapeutic but spiritual. These are points to which I will return since in the West meditation is primarily seen as a tool which can be divorced from spirituality and used to turn workers into more effective drones for their employers by de-stressing them and making them less liable to a number of illnesses.

The technique supposes the divided self. That is, a person’s consciousness exists at a number of different levels which might be antagonistic to each other but which could be in harmony. Krishna identifies the seeker, the mind and the Spirit. I think the seeker is that part of ourselves that provides a running commentary on what we are doing. The part of me that asks ‘are you sure about this?‘ just before I do something really stupid and then says ‘I did try to warn you’ five minutes later. The seeker, then, is an internal observer, governed in large part by reason, and is the thing which explains ourselves to ourselves. Because it is rational it constantly seeks meaning and, provided that the rest of our consciousness doesn’t gang up and smother it, it is likely to lead us to explore ideas and practices which will provide us with that meaning.

The mind in this context has a broader definition than we usually give to it in everyday speech. It refers to the parts of ourselves which react directly to the material world which we encounter. As such it includes unconscious or subconscious phenomena like habits, emotions, desires, preferences and the like as well as, paradoxically perhaps, the body since it is primarily through the body that the mind interacts with the world and the world interacts with the mind. The mind is often divided against itself as its rival desires and impulses head off in different directions and meanwhile the seeker while it comments on their actions cannot control them. It is no coincidence, incidentally, that in the Gita Krishna is a charioteer whose business it is to control four horses which each wish to travel their own path.

What the Spirit might be is a bit trickier to pin down. The hesychast tradition here would talk about the heart. So where Krishna calls for the mind to be led into the Spirit the hesychast would say ‘let the mind descend into the heart.‘  I think that whatever we call it it is the object of our quest when we begin to meditate. It is a door or a gate or perhaps a mirror. It is a point at which the “I” of myself intersects with the transcendent ground of being. So, it is my heart and its Spirit, but it is also its Heart and my spirit. What we call it depends upon the angle from which we look at it. The hesychast descends into the heart because that is the part within himself (or herself) which is the first step on the rung of the ladder which leads to ultimate identification with That Which Is. The seeker and the mind go into the Spirit because it is That Which Is. And they are both the same thing.

Not surprisingly this all sounds very religious. The medium through which we can establish the truth of the idea that the seeker and the mind together can enter into the Spirit, is silence. This does not simply mean the absence of external noise, something very difficult for an average person living in an average city to experience, it also, and primarily, means the absence of interior noise, that is, the suspension of thought. Thought is a useful tool for investigating something but can be an obstacle to experiencing something.

The post Industrial Revolution, post Enlightenment West is suspicious of sidelining thought or, to put it another way, it repudiates something which it calls ‘blind faith.’ So, let me offer you an analogy. If you become a parent your immediate reaction to seeing your child for the very first time is not thought. It is love and joy and possibly an element of surprise. Thought comes later, it is a necessary but not sufficient element in your relationship with the child. To put food on the table, to put a roof over your heads and to protect the baby against all the dangers it might face, you need to think clearly and effectively. But for the baby to flourish and for you to flourish with it thought alone will not be enough. That initial surge of love becomes the foundation for a prolonged period of sustaining love which eventually becomes an exchange of love. That is the x-factor which gives strength and meaning to the relationship. Thought is an auxiliary not a master in this the most fundamental of all the human journeys.

In meditation, then, silence is that place of encounter where my essence and the universal essence meet, recognise each other and merge. Or, at any rate, that is the object of the exercise, success cannot be guaranteed for reasons which I shall come to. How do we achieve this suspension of thought? There is nothing complex in the method at all. Withdrawing our senses from all their objects of desire we focus on the incoming and outgoing breath. Often we will accompany this with a word, or phrase, or short sentence, which we repeat silently or aloud in tandem with our breathing. This might be Namo Amitabha Buddha or Hare Krishna or Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God depending upon our particular tradition.

Just because the method is simple we might think that the practice must be easy. Actually it isn’t. Both the seeker and the mind, in its various component parts, do not stop chattering merely because we want them to. So a major part of the discipline consists in not engaging with any of the thoughts or desires which arise during meditation. And another part of the discipline is not getting angry with ourselves when we realise that we have, after all, engaged in something. As soon as we realise that, just let it go without irritation and focus once more on the breath and on the words. Incidentally, the particular words are important, we shouldn’t just pick a random selection like one, two, three or baa, baa, black sheep. Our consciousness engages at some level with the words, even if we are not fully aware of this, so they will direct it to its primary purpose if they are relevant and they will lead it off into irrelevancies if they aren’t.

So, if we get the technique right and all our thoughts are silence shall we experience a blinding flash and emerge as a fully enlightened being? Not necessarily, as I mentioned earlier success is not guaranteed. Why not? A crucial part of the process Krishna outlined was right at the beginning namely the seekers task to ‘quietly lead‘ the mind. There is a certain resonance between ‘quiet’ here and ‘silence’ later in the text because calmness is necessary to meditation and the sooner it starts the better. However, I think there is a more crucial meaning at work here as well.

As a charioteer Krishna’s business is to quiet the horses before they can be trusted to go into battle successfully. Similarly it is the seeker’s task to quiet the various impulses of the mind. And here we encounter what Christians call ‘sin’ and Buddhists call ‘desire.’ That is, we cannot see God or achieve satori unless we are at a particular level of virtue. Our desires within the material world and our attachment to objects, and we often treat people as objects, are so many obstacles to us precisely because they keep the mind out of the heart, they throw up dust, they make a noise. This is why Christians insistently call for a change of the direction of the mind, metanoia in the original Greek usually translated as repentance in English, and other traditions call for detachment.

Meditation is hard work. Preparing the ground through detachment is difficult, achieving suspension of thoughts is difficult. There is no McDonalds, fast food approach to enlightenment that actually works. Which brings me back to religion. Humans require incentives to work hard, it is not something which comes naturally to us. Humans are also storytelling creatures. And the incentives which work for us come in the form of stories. Different kinds of stories appeal to different levels of our divided self. So, the narrative that goes ‘if I do this it will help me therapeutically and at work’ speaks to a relatively superficial part of our psyche because its objective is simply ‘more of the same but better’ in relation to our normal everyday lives. A religious narrative directs us towards a qualitatively new thing, something, quite literally, beyond the mundane.

The work required to achieve the therapeutic effects of career related meditation is fairly minimal since all we are aiming at is an enhanced feeling of calm. The work required to achieve a breakthrough into union with the transcendent unity which underlies the diversity we observe is intense. So the incentive we require must be of an equal strength. Returning to our baby of a few paragraphs ago, part of the power which attracts us to her is that she is not only a new story in her own right but she is part of our story, and part of our parents story, and part of all our ancestors stories, and part of the story of the whole human race. She is a link in the chain and that’s one reason why we become so dedicated to her and sacrifice so much for her.

The great religious traditions provide us with stories which link us to that transcendent dimension which we encounter when we are lead into the Spirit or descend into the heart and which we can sometimes glimpse or sense at other times. These stories succeed in their purpose, something which is evidenced by the reports which practitioners of the faiths have produced for us over thousands of years of human history. Therefore they must, in a deep sense, be true. Not, perhaps, in a literal sense, since they tend to be incompatible with each other, at that level only one of them at most can be both literally true and reveal a truth about our ability to access the divine. Yet all of them must have enough truth in them to become genuinely effective.

It is not, however, just about the stories alone. It is about our relationship with them. A story does not work on its own, it works, if it works at all, through us, through our being immersed in it. That is, faith is an essential requirement for meditation to be successful. Only through making ourselves a part of a narrative which is both ancient and always new, which is unfolding in time and rooted in eternity, can we hope to have that tenacity, that will-to-succeed, that work rate that will keep us true to years and decades of dedicated practice that appears to produce no results at all. Meditation is necessarily both religious and spiritual or it is not meditation at all.

If you have managed to read thus far the final thought I would leave you with is that when it comes to meditation we should recall the words of Lao Tzu the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching “those who know do not speak and those who speak do not know.


thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.

For more about Catholic contemplative prayer you can read The Science of the Cross by Edith Stein.

For more about hesychasm you can read Writings from the Philokalia On Prayer of the Heart.

The picture is of the water lily Nymphaea ‘Peter Slocum’


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