Monday, August 1, 2011

What is Meditation? (A Naturalist's Perspective)

“Meditation is really very simple; there is not much need to elaborate techniques to teach us how to go about it. ... Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life.”
                                                -          Thomas Merton
                                  Contemplative Prayer (1969)

"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.  When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual." (29)
                                 -          Carl Sagan
                                      The Demon-Haunted World (1996)

         Perhaps because I’ve written a lot in my blogs about meditation, a couple people have recently asked me, “What is meditation?”  I’ve practiced meditation – under one guise or another – for forty years, and I would now say that meditation is a procedure for centering oneself in oneself, as well as a process through which to come to peace in one’s body and in one’s life in the Earth & Cosmos.  Though I first learned meditation under the guise of wicchan mysticism in the 1970’s, and later learned both Celtic and a monastic meditative practices, I have found meditation to be, at root, a naturalistic experience; i.e.,—there is nothing 'supernatural' about the process itself.  If you are religious, meditation will play into your spirituality and contribute to your adventuring toward whatever goal your religion prescribes for you.  But meditation itself is not a religious practice, and does not need to be expressed in religious terms.

         There is also nothing anti-religious about the practice of meditation, and so I quote Thomas Merton at the head of this blog, along with Carl Sagan, because Merton taught me a great deal about the depth and breadth of meditation and contemplative experience at a time when I was immersing myself in the western monastic tradition.  I might also have quoted the Goddess-centered work of Starhawk, whose book The Spiral Dance (1989) deepened my spiritual praxis and gave me a more mature Pagan framework for meditation than I’d been using up to that point.  I employed her exercises for meditation on the Circle and the four cardinal directions for several years, before moving on to a more thoroughgoing Celtic mythological framework for meditation.  Yet, none of the traditions represented by these writers has an exclusive claim to meditation.

          Meditation is practiced in a great many human religious and philosophical traditions, and at root meditation is something human beings have a propensity for; many people 'meditate' without any training.  Others have had moments of profound silence and peace that simply emerged from the ordinary flow of their lives.  Before it is ever incorporated into a religious framework, meditation is something we are capable of because of the wiring of our brains and our nervous systems.  The practice of meditation is about honing this natural capability and benefitting more from it than we might ordinarily do.

        When I think about the nature of meditation, I often reflect on an experience I had in the late 1980’s that has become a touchstone for my current perspective.   At that time, I was striving to develop an ecumenical approach to faith and the divine, and I had the good fortune to meditate in a group that consisted, first, of two Buddhists, three Christians and myself.  We had good experiences, and in group meditation sometimes a kind of ‘group state’ of peace embraced all of us.  We had this ‘group’ experience three or four times, at which point I was moved to invite two wicchan friends of mine into the circle to meditate with us.  Everyone used their own symbols and chanted words and did imaging exercises appropriate to their own tradition.  There was often cacophony at the beginning, and then a kind of harmony would emerge, leading ultimately to peace in silence and a deep sense of love and togetherness.  For Buddhists, Christians and Witches?  Together? Yes.  It seemed to prove to us the ecumenical tenet that all religions are variations on the One Theme and that what one calls God and another Nirvana and another The Goddess are all human – if also revealed – ways of expressing the Truth of the Divine-Beyond-Names.

         Once or twice an atheist friend of mine who was learning to meditate, sat in on the sessions, and the second or third time he was with us, to our amazement, he came to a profound peace and silence in his own self, and felt, so he himsefl said, “at one” with the rest of us and with “the universe.”  It was a sublime moment for him – being in a circle full of religious people who were being as open as they could be to his non-belief.  It was a sublime experience for us!  The problem arose when someone suggested that even atheists -- because of our common experience -- must ultimately be partcipating in the Divine-Beyond-Names and that my atheist friend was, somehow, experiencing the Divine.  After that, he left our circle and never returned to it, and I fully understand why!  We were co-opting him, even if with the best of intentions and out of a sense of wonder that he might have been experiencing the same thing as we were; namely “the Divine,” by whatever name we might call it.  We just didn’t understand how this was possible!

          For years this experience nagged at me.  On the one hand, I wanted to affirm the ecumenical ideal that all religions can lead their adherents to the Truth and to the Divine-Beyond-Names (God, Allah, Yahweh, the Goddess, Buddha, etc.).  _I still affirm this, by the way.  But my atheist friend’s experience was a fly in the honey.  Over the next few years I shed my religious aspirations and beliefs.  Along the path to which I felt called, ‘God’ led me into a study of science as a way of re-grounding myself and my spirituality, and then 'God' -- or perhaps the experience that I thought of as the Presence of 'God' -- ‘vanished,’ whatever that might mean.  Since then, I prefer to study Nature seeking Wisdom, and as such I don’t spend much time talking about ‘the Divine,’ under whatever guise.  My journey from religion into science has inspired in me a desire to re-frame the wisdom of religious traditions in naturalistic terms, as I learned a great deal about being and becoming human from my religious experience; whether I was wicchan, Celtic or Christian in my orientation.

         I still meditate; almost every day.  And I have come to I see the solution to the conundrum of my atheist friend’s experience all too clearly.  It’s not primarily that by meditating we were all brought into communion with the Big Something; the Divine-Beyond-Names, but that by meditating in a genuine way we each ended up in a similar bodily state; one of peace, in which we were unstressed, revivified physically and mentally, and were feeling very good together as a result.  It has been true – at least in my experience – that meditating in a group can generate a positive ‘group’ experience.  Everyone is feeling good, and you can sense that the people around you are feeling good.  I now understand that this is what was happening in that circle 30 years or so ago.  I don’t mean to say that those of us who were religious in that circle weren’t experiencing the Divine.  I’m saying that the experience of peace and silence that was the result of meditating was a naturalistic, bodily state, and that we were wrong to conflate that with an experience of the Divine.

         So, given my journey and where I am now, how do I answer the question, “What is Meditation?”  First, it is a procedure for centering oneself in oneself.  Meditation begins with three preparations and then unfolds according to three basic steps.  The three preparations are: (1) Finding a place to meditate, (2) Establishing a time to meditate, and (3) Choosing a ‘posture’ for meditation.  In the beginning days and months of meditation you should use a single place, set aside for the purpose of daily meditation.  You should also start off by meditating at the same time every day.  To meditate is to re-train our bodies; ourselves--and regularity reinforcing repetition is one of the best methods.  Once you find a place and pick a time, you need to decide how best to posture yourself.  Most people sit on a chair or on the floor.  I’ve known one person who could meditate standing up, but I think it was an acquired taste; something he didn’t do regularly or in the beginning when he was learning to meditate.  I’ve also known two or three people who lay down to meditate; but the great danger there is falling asleep.  Sitting is the most usual posture, and if you sit on a chair, choose one that will allow you to sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your spine relaxed.  Whether you sit on a chair or on the floor, position yourself so that your torso is ‘balanced’ over your hips, so you are not struggling to sit still or to maintain your balance.  You don’t have to get this right at the very beginning.  Just do your best; over time, the ‘right’ posture will emerge as you let go of stress and your body comes to peace.

         The three basic steps to meditation are (1) Breathing, (2) Centering (sometimes called Detachment), and (3) Focusing (sometimes called Attachment).  By breathing correctly, inhaling and exhaling neither too shallowly nor too deeply, we create an ‘environment’ in our body conducive to the release of stress.  It is good in the beginning to count while breathing in, and then again while breathing out.  If you breathe too deeply or too fast, you will hyperventilate.  If you breathe too slowly or too shallow, I’ve read you run the risk of passing out; though I’ve never known anyone who has actually gone this far wrong.  The point of breathing well is to slightly raise your oxygen levels in the first minute or two of meditation, as this will help your muscles unclench and relax.  Then, you should settle into a rhythm of breathing that quiets you and brings you to silence.  Only by practice will you learn how to do this.

         Associated with this breathing is what can be called “Centering.”  We are often a bundle of disparate intentions, going this way and that; we need to do ‘this,’ we need to get ‘that’ done--and as a result we are all over the place!  Centering is the use of an image or a word or phrase to collect the mind and let go – at least for a few minutes to a half hour daily – of all the things that are making demands on our time and our attention.  When I talk in blogs about “The Dolmen on the Heath” or “The Hut of Dwelling,” these are images of ‘places’ that I go to imaginatively where I can experience myself in myself; where I can come to stillness in the solitude of myself—and not be my usual outwardly directed spiral of intentions and interests!   Centering is a process of letting go; of coming to rest; of being still and experiencing my-self as I am in my-self.  It is always a more or less transient state, but it is a valuable state to achieve.

         Focusing is the third step in meditation, and this usually involves “meditating on” something.  When I spoke in the last blog about meditating on the Periodic Table of the Elements, I was describing a focusing exercise. Focusing involves using something with a bit of content that you find edifying or that you feel contributes to your knowing and understanding of the Earth & Cosmos – or perhaps Jesus or the Goddess, etc., if you are religious.  It should be edifying; it should remind you of the goodness of Nature or of a truth about human nature or be some kind of rune of wisdom.  The things we focus on in meditation will become deeply encoded in our minds and in our being.  So, we need to chose the things we focus on with care!

         Meditation is a process through which to come to peace in one’s body and in one’s life in the Earth & Cosmos.  The basic steps I have outlined here are but the barest summary of the praxis, but they should be sufficient to start you on your way, if you are interested.  While I don’t have time to discuss even these basic in any more detail here, please feel free to question me about them, if you are interested in meditation.  I would gladly write another blog on meditation, if anyone is interested, in which I could go into there things in more detail, and even touch upon more advanced techniques and practices.

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