What is Meditation?
Most books spend their time telling us about how to meditate. This article is more about what meditation is, what is happening to me during meditation, and what the consequences of meditation are for us in the longer term.
It is important at the start to be clear about what we mean by meditation. The use of the two words meditation and contemplation can be very confusing as they are used in opposite ways by different groups. What I am talking about here is meditation that is beyond words and is communion with God in God’s language of silence. This is the ordinarily accepted meaning of meditation, as it is in Buddhism, with contemplation being similar to reflection and hence a thinking activity. In Catholic circles at least, these two words are used the other way round, so that meditation means reflecting on sacred images and texts, and contemplation is resting in the silence of God.
Again, I should explain that for me God is being, or the ground of our being, the eternal now, rather than ‘a’ being. I use God as a simple metaphor for that which we cannot and never will be able to put into words in any adequate way. We can only point and hint, whatever word or words we use. However, if you see God as a being, then that is right for you. In the spiritual world, both can be right, as they are right for you at this time. That is the paradox of God’s dimension of existence. They are right now, but may change over time. Nothing is permanent as Buddhists like to say.
Meditation is all about deepening our relationship with God, which is both at the core of our being, our true self, and everywhere about us; the ground of being. God is everything and more. We deepen that relationship in our communion with God using the language of God which is silence.
If we do not move into this silence we can only go so far in our spiritual development. We can reflect on God in silence, and we can reflect on our own lives in silence, but this will only take us so far. This is the point that many Quakers reach, thanks to this reflection in silence. The same is true for many Buddhist meditators in this country. The trouble is that both then become stuck at this level. What they do is great, and it helps them to deepen their spirituality immensely, moving well beyond the kind of religion that is full of set answers. They also develop a good relationship with God, but it is only intimacy to a limited degree. There comes a point when we need to experience God directly if we are to deepen that relationship further.
This is where meditation comes in. We show our intent in meditation to be open to God and to be open to God working in our lives. We show this by our turning up to meditate each day. Twenty minutes twice a day is the recommended minimum amount. We also show it by the use of our sacred word, the meaning of which is that we are agreeing to be open to God. But like in any relationship, we are only willing to open ourselves up to a certain degree. As the relationship develops, hopefully we become more trusting, find deeper faith, and become to be more and more open. But that is a lifelong process.
In this article I am not talking about the process of meditation, which I have covered elsewhere. I am talking about what is happening in meditation and what are the long term outcomes. Thus, as our relationship deepens, we increasingly experience God’s unconditional love for us, and as a consequence of that God’s unconditional love for others, and for the world. At the same time we experience God’s unconditional forgiveness and acceptance of us. Or as Buddhists would say, unconditional compassion. Without this ‘loving friendliness’ in Buddhism that Gunaratana speaks of, meditation is a relatively worthless process, just as it is inChristianity without God’s unconditional love.
This is quite unlike any other relationship that we will have experienced. All other relationships are conditional. Even the closest relationships are conditional. We need the other person to meet some of our needs, and they need us to meet some of theirs. In that way no one is free to be themselves, but has to be, in part, the person the other one wants us to be in order to meet their unmet needs
These basic needs are what are transformed through meditation in a process that lasts a lifetime, what Thomas Keating refers to as the unloading of the unconscious. The ego’s way of doing things is distorted by our life’s experiences, especially through childhood. Transformation is the way these distorted motives for doing things are addressed and gradually healed. In particular, Thomas keating highlights distortions around three basic needs; the first is the need for love and affection, our sense of belonging, feeling valued, needed and loved. The second is the need to survive and how this affects our feelings of being threatened by, or trusting our environment. The last is our need for control and power, whether we feel the need to control our own lives, the lives of others, as well as our environment. When the ego seeks to meet these needs, it does so in ways that are distorted by the frustrations, pains and hurts that we encounter as babies and children, and which are often buried deep within our unconscious, and yet which still affect all that we do. This is the distorted ego, driven on by the distortions within the unconscious.
These are needs that were thwarted when we were babies and young people growing up. It was not that we were not loved, but the whole process of growing up is so complex, that even in the best of situations, that hurt and anger gets buried within us, often deep within the very cells of our being, often buried deep within our unconscious. Obviously in poor parental situations these hurts multiply grossly.
But in meditation we meet a relationship that is unconditional, that is non-attached, that allows us to be who we truly are. Suddenly we have a choice, to stay as we are or to begin to explore who we truly are. But to do that we have to face the truth of the person we are at present, with all our distortions caused by those buried hurts. Only when we feel held in that love can we face up to the depth of those hurts. And like any relationship, it is one that deepens over time, as we begin to trust that we will not be overwhelmed by those hurts, and that getting them out into the open actually leaves us freer and more joyful within. Our shadow side is no longer frightening, something to be avoided. We no longer have to pretend about who we are. We can look at ourselves in all truth and not turn away. This is the detached observer of Buddhist meditation. Now we can integrate all our darkness into our true self as a unified whole.
One of the ways that the ego uses to avoid facing up to these distortions is by the use of defence mechanisms. We deny in us the things that we do not like, the fact that we are always getting angry. We project onto others the things we don’t like in ourselves, calling them unforgiving, when in fact, it is we that cannot forgive. We repress the things we don’t like in ourselves deep down, such as latent homosexuality, and instead become totally driven to outlaw homosexuality. This inability to face up to the Truth is what is known as ‘sin’. In Buddhism they term them defilements.
We also gain faith that whilst there are some parts of the unconscious so deeply buried that we can’t access them; that in this relationship there is healing even of these parts over time. This is the healing of the unconscious that Thomas Keating speaks of.
Meditation increasingly becomes an everyday part of our whole lives. We top it up in formal sessions of meditation, but we have deepened to the point where that meditative approach is with us in all that we do. Quakers speak of having a guide and teacher with us in all that we do. We can stand back and see life for what it truly is, not as we imagine it to be, or want it to be.
The effects of all this can be seen in our lives. The key criteria in assessing whether anything is from God, or not, is whether it leads to a deepening of the fruit of the Spirit, namely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control as outlined in Galatians. We may not be aware of the changes as they happen gradually as we continue meditating, but those around us certainly will be. It is also a deepening of humility within us, of faith, as well as the development of non-attachment.
There is though a deeper level than this, and that is around our addictions. We all have some sort of addictions. Some are obvious such as alcohol or drugs, others are to do with our emotions, addicted to being a victim or a martyr, or to anger or violence. Others can be connected to our spiritual lives, such as addiction to pride. These are the most difficult areas of our lives to eradicate. We have all sorts of mental tricks for not facing up to the fact that these addictions control us. We like to think that we are still in control. It is only when we hit rock bottom, when we stand naked before God that we can admit that we cannot do anything without God’s support. And in that moment, God does reach out and help us because God is unconditional love. Our experience of that love though in this situation is at a much deeper level than before.
This unconditional love and forgiveness does not give us free licence to do whatever we want. What happens is that we respond to that love and we reciprocate it in all of our life. We only let our ego rule when we are ignorant and blind to that unconditional love. Once we experience it we have no choice but to go into that transformation. It is the paradox that we find we have no freedom, because we want more than anything to obey that love, and yet we have total freedom because we are no longer subject to all the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ that dominate the ego; the hardening of the ‘oughteries’.
Another thing that starts to happen is that our relationship with God is there not just during those formal twenty minutes of meditation, but throughout the day. The whole of our life starts to become a meditation. It is at this time that we start to see the world as if we were looking through the eyes of God. Previous to meditation, when we had reflected on life, we had gradually come to see the limitations of the way the ego thinks, what we term dualistic thinking. This is the approach to life where we divide everything up, into good or bad, higher or lower. It is either –or thinking. The kind of thinking that leads to the scenario of either we are right and they are wrong, or they are right and we are wrong. But of course we are right and they are wrong. If it is an issue that does not matter too much, then we depart, each thinking that we are right and the other wrong. If the matter is more important, then we use force, and the one with most force has proved that they are right.
But in meditation we enter into God’s world of unitive thinking. This is the both-and approach. This is where both people can be right. One may believe that God is a person, the other that God is being. In God’s world, both are right. They are both appropriate for the level of spirituality that the person is at. When the time is right for them to deepen their spirituality, then their understanding will move on.
Another way of looking at this is that in meditation we are experiencing the present moment, we are living in the eternal now of God. When we are in our ego thinking state, we are mostly either in the past or the future. Something happens and immediately we start thinking about it or analysing it. It is no longer immediate. It is like emotions. Something happens to annoy us. A minute later we replay the incident. All the physical eternal sensations arise again, but are responding to our thoughts, not something that is real and happening out there now. In the same way, we spend much thought in the future that has not even happened yet, but still worrying or getting angry about it. All this is the same as Buddhist mindfulness. It is just a different set of words that we use to describe the same experience.
This is what Jesus meant when he started off his ministry by saying repent. It was not a cry against the moral life of people. It was a cry for them to look at life in a different way, through God’s eyes. The same can be seen in the Koans of Zen Buddhism. They are an attempt to shake us out of our dualistic thinking and to see through the unified eyes of compassion. The parables of Jesus served a similar function. All the above is what we call these days the process of transformation.
All this does not mean that we turn into a completely spiritual being. In fact, as people become more spiritual, they tend to become more involved in the world about them, and definitely more effective in what they do. I like the image of a tripod. It has three legs of the same length firmly planted on the earth, so that it is strong and steady. I imagine each leg as being 25 centimetres in length. This image came to me after I learnt that I had one leg two centimetres shorter than the other. This meant that all my life I had been compensating for this, distorting the way I walked. How amazing the body is that I had never really noticed. But there were long term consequences for my spine and for increasing lower back pain.
With this image in mind I then looked at people. Today we have a huge emphasis on the ego and the thinking part of our brain. This has been increasing since the Enlightenment, and can be seen in such statements as: ‘I think therefore I am’. In many ways the spiritual aspect of life has been squeezed out and most people are unaware that at their core is what Quakers term ‘that of God in everyone’. Our lives are dominated by this way of thinking. The end result is that this leg of the tripod is now 50 centimetres long.
The second leg of the tripod relates to our awareness of our bodies. So many people are not even aware of how their muscles are working, let alone other parts of their bodies. They have a lack of awareness of non-verbal communication, either from themselves or from other people. They have a lack of awareness of that intuition that our bodies contain that Gendlin speaks of that we can tune into. This is where yoga and other methods of becoming aware of our bodies can help so much. As it is, it is like this leg of the tripod is only 10 centimetres long.
The third leg is our spirituality, or our wisdom. As already stated, these days most people are not even aware that this leg exists. The majority of others are aware only to a limited extent, hence the rise of fundamentalism in religion. The end result today is that this leg is only 5 centimetres long in our society.
So we have a tripod with three legs, one of 50 centimetres, one of ten centimetres, and one of 5 centimetres. No wonder people are distorted and unbalanced. No wonder society is distorted and unbalanced. Like with my body, it is amazing how people and society compensate for these unequal lengths. But it does set up strains and eventually these strains will destroy all health. What we need is salvation, or health, or wholeness.
What we need is a balanced society where the legs are of equal length. Where we have spiritual depth that flows into our working life where we require our egos to be working well. If we stress any one of these over the others, we will be back into unbalance. Our life journey is to achieve and maintain balance. It is known as transformation, or discipleship.
Freeman Laurence – The Selfless Self Canterbury Press 2009
Gendlin Eugene – Focussing Rider 1988
Gunaratana Bhante Henepola – Mindfulness in Plain English Wisdom 2002
Keating Thomas – Open Mind, Open Heart Bloomsbury 2006
Rohr Richard – Breathing Underwater Franciscan Media 2011
Smith Elizabeth and Chalmers Joseph – A Deeper love Continuum 2005