August 15th, 2011
This weekend I found myself among a group of people who were talking about prayer and meditation. The commonly expressed viewpoint about meditation was that, as opposed to prayer, it is very hard to do. People said, it’s so hard to quiet your mind, to turn off your thoughts, to achieve that state of near oblivion that most people seem to think is the goal of the practice.
My experience is almost the opposite. Prayer does not come easily to me. More to the point, I don’t think that meditation is about any of those things, no more than golf is about going out and hitting a hole in one. It’s nice if it happens, but it’s not why we play the game. I’ve been meditating for about a decade, now, and the hardest thing about it, I think, is that it requires patience and discipline. Like any practice requiring patience and discipline, the more you do it, the more of those qualities you find you possess.
Basically, meditation is a process of listening to your life. Your life in the room around you, and the places around that room, the refrigerator whirring on, a grasshopper thunking into the window, the dust dancing in the light. Mostly, you listen to that voice in your head. Or voices. Let’s say “voices;” it makes my next metaphor easier. I don’t mean “listen” in the sense of active empathy. I’m talking about a much more passive sort of listening. You listen to them the way you listen to people talking in a movie theatre before the show. You’re not part of the conversation, it just goes on around you. Well, within you, but you know what I mean. If you start getting drawn in to the chatter, you remind yourself not to. Just let it happen.
Even at the early stage of meditation I’ve just described, it’s surprising what can happen. One notices things. A few weeks after I first started meditating, I noticed lights floating around the room. The border of the carpet I was sitting on began to glow in a strange way. Sitting next to a room where recently an angry scene had taken place, I saw black smoke seeping under the door. I told my meditation teacher about the things I’d seen, the lights. I asked him what they were. He laughed and said, “Enlightenment.” After a while they stopped occurring. I missed them at first. They had been a nice distraction from the work. You notice thoughts, ideas, feelings, patterns, urges. You get to know what is in your heart with a clarity and comprehensiveness that weren’t there before. Solutions to problems and conundrums appear out of nowhere. You notice that you are somehow separate from all that, and bigger.
After a while – weeks, months, years – you start to notice when the voices (yeah, them again) pause to catch a breath or exhaust one idea or topic and have to cast about for another. These spaces in the conversation are ever so brief, yet in them you notice there is something huge. It is the universe, unobscured. Or it is you, unobscured. Take your pick. After a while – weeks, months, years – you maybe catch a glimpse, for one of those brief instants, of what it is like when you are quiet. I’ve had this happen, oh, maybe maybe a dozen or two dozen times. It is a clearer taste of eternity than orgasm, but no less hard to describe. Here is a poem, in the form of linked haiku, about that:
Sinking earthward through
layers of thought, how will I
know when I’ve touched down?
And here it is – a
creak in the wall, a sun-stroked
floor. Wind shakes the frame.
Once or twice I have managed to slip into one of those spaces, for just the briefest instant, and look back, and see my ego, the chatterer, running around and around like a puppy chasing its own tail. I saw what it is scared of, but I wasn’t scared. Here’s a sonnet about that:
In its ivory cage the winged dog chases
its own tail with swoops and loop-de-loops, soars
intricately at its varied paces
past the speed-blurred bars and just-ajar door.
Drugs might help you see its flight in trails that
curlicue and dash with almost meaning,
weaving finer than the Book of Kells. But
this once at the door it stops careening,
pokes a quivering snout outside – The air hums.
Sheets of scent it had torn through now stretch un-
ending, undulating, full of what comes
him who waits. The seconds slowly stretch. – then,
sensing immense space unflapped by dogwings
snaps back to embroidering its nothings.