I came to meditation at the age of twenty while listening to Indian music. Indian raga has stayed with me all of my life since then. It is the music I listen to when I am writing. It overcomes all other sound and encourages my creative self. Just listening to raga puts me in a creative, open state of availability to inspiration. It is that state I strive to enter when I meditate today, with or without music.
Moved by listening to raga, I devoted myself to Sanskrit studies: at Edinburgh University, Oxford, and later on a fellowship at Harvard. I was fortunate to work with two of the most famous Sanskrit teachers in the world: Richard Gombrich at Oxford and H.H.H. Ingalls at Harvard. I was not a good student. (I would welcome the opportunity today to find these two great men, and apologize to them.) Dreaming of music, travel, sensuality, meditation, and enlightenment, I tripped instead over Sanskrit grammar; was sucker-punched by deadly 12th century commentaries on Hindu scriptures; and then knocked out by the weird Tibetan alphabet, which showed me no way in.
I am sorry that I was not a better student. I became one of thousands of graduate school dropouts, exiling myself from the Academy and the war in Vietnam. I moved to a communal farm just starting up in Vermont.
On the farm, I awoke to write for several hours before the day’s work began. This was my mindful practice: I would get up in the dark, start the fire, unfreeze my drinking water, sit, and write. I would withdraw from the material world into a deeper place as night’s last stars winked out. That is how my first novel, Burnt Toast, got written.
At the end of most days on the commune, a small group of us meditated more formally. Twenty minutes exactly (ticking egg timer buried under dusty clothes), no mantra, counting out-breaths, settling in and whirling down, a little chime to mark the end.
I reveled in this enforced silence. I was a lifelong stutterer. During my adolescence my condition seemed like a prison cell to me. I am also small in stature. One winter on the farm, I did a silent retreat for seven days. It wasn’t too long or rigorous, as I still went about my farm work and occasionally communicated with my comrades by pantomime or a brief written message. But silent I was, and disciplined. I meditated twice a day. That is when an unexpected thing happened.
When you meditate, unexpected things will happen. This is certain. It is even what you go there for. You do not always find what you are looking for; usually you find something better. What happened to me as the week went on came as a total surprise. My mind seemed to expand beyond the confines of my brain. It seemed to occupy more of my body. How I had longed all my life to be freed from the need for vocal expression! Now, with my voice shut down, the distance between my consciousness and my mouth, the portal of painful speech, seemed to grow and scatter.
Losing thus one of the cues for my actual physical size, I felt a foot taller than I had ever been. I still sensed the existence of the virtual prison bars in front of me–the image of my speech difficulty–but upon turning around I realized that there was nothing behind me; there was no wall, no cell, no prison: nothing. I had been looking at the world from the wrong angle. The silent experience of that nothingness at my back felt joyful, inebriating. Thus, two major physical self-descriptions that had deluded me for my entire life, transformed themselves into positives. That second positive has stayed with me forever.
At the end of the silent retreat, the first words I spoke seemed ridiculous: they emerged as if printed on a cheap ribbon that dangled from my lips like a message sticking out of a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant.
I meditate today to return to that feeling of joy. I hope you experience that, too. When you meditate, there are so many things to do. You can:
sit on a chair
sit on a cushion
sit on the floor
close your eyes
chant a silent Sanskrit mantra
chant a silent English mantra
travel inside a poem that you love
count your inbreaths
count your outbreaths
slow your heart rate
listen to the sounds around you
not listen to the sounds around you
be aware of the sounds your body makes, in your ears, bones, and the various systems working away on their own
watch the thoughts in your personal inner monologue come and go
solve a problem
face a difficulty you have needed to wrestle with
try to achieve a flash of enlightenment
try to achieve a permanent condition of enlightenment
not try either of these
consider your identity
visualize an achievable goal
visualize an unachievable goal
follow a specific technique
listen to instrumental music
travel down to deeper layers of consciousness
connect with the universal Soul (in Sanskrit: atman)
create a work of art: musical, visual, literary, or some other form
focus on curing your disease
focus on curing someone else’s disease
focus on curing the world’s diseases
ride the spiral highway, chakra to chakra, up and down your spine
pray to God, or the Goddess, or whatever Universal Life Force you believe in
let go of fear.
Thus you can see that, with so many possibilities, you can never be bored while meditating. Sometimes it seems to me so exciting, that there are so many options when I sit and close my eyes, breathe, and get out of the way, that it is a scrumptious feast—an all-you-can-eat buffet—laid out for me. And it’s all good! Everything, anything I choose, will be delicious.
Meditation is a state of body and mind that you access deliberately. It is not sleeping. It is not waking. Not resting, not dreaming, not a quick power nap. Not an exercise. None of these!
Meditation requires discipline. You are not expected to always have that discipline. It is like playing a musical instrument, training at a sport, working on your novel. You may be a person of superhuman discipline, with no problem getting down to practice every day. For most of us, some days, you just may not get there in spite of all your best intentions: that is okay! But when you do, you may feel everything that seemed important in your work life, your student life, your love life, your busy activity out there, drop away, and if you are lucky you feel: wait, all of that other stuff is not really me. THIS is. THIS is my center, my default setting. THIS is who I really am. This universal feeling is the source of the theory of Maya, which says that on some level everything in the material world is a veil of illusion, that what is real is only accessible on some other level. As the Little Prince says, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
A sincere understanding of maya–which translates to an ability to look beyond the surface of things and a wish to help others do that, too–can be a huge help in reaching clarity in a conflict situation. It might help you to see beyond this moment, this argument, these particular people, this crisis. At least you could become a better listener.
In our present ecological crisis, and indeed with an eye to all the conflicted situations in this world that we would like to transform, we can take this sense of THIS is my true self, and realize that while it seems to come from some place of tremendous universal energy, it also persuades us of the interconnectedness of all things.
Like me in my silent retreat, we can think differently about our size, our physicality. We are more than what we used to think we were. Our self does not stop in our brain, or even at our skin. We are the world.
As Joanna Macy says in her beautiful essay, “The Greening of the Self,”
“The awakening to our true self is the awakening to that entirety, breaking out of the prison-self of separate ego… We are all capable of experiencing that–it is our true nature. We are profoundly interconnected and therefore we are all able to recognize and act upon our deep, intricate, and intimate inter-existence with each other and all beings.”
And Albert Einstein, who knew the workings of the universe better than almost anyone, said this:
“A human being is a part of the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
These are mystical comments, and I’m not saying that you have to believe in this phenomenon in a spiritual way, or even in a political way, but you can see how meditation can at least give you a very positive understanding of your place in the world (even if your place is very small). If you are open to it. And at the same time you might welcome the thought that you are not divided from the rest of the world. And picture this: any other human being has the potential for a similar understanding.
And now for the FAQ’s:
- Is meditation a religion?
Meditation is not a religion. It is a physical and mental practice. My friend Mike Bodkin (Brandeis, BA 1969) is the leader of Rites of Passage, a vision quest provider in California. He used to say, “you are doing something physical to your body in order to do something mental to your mind.” In other words, meditation involves just enough physical control to give you a handle on mental control. But it’s DIY, “Do It Yourself;” you don’t need an institutional religion to help you.
You can be Jewish or Catholic or Muslim and still practice meditation. In fact, I firmly believe that you should.
Wait. Your pastor may turn suspicious. They may warn you to stay away from meditation as a suspect Orientalist spiritual practice that cannot fit into your organized religion. Do not believe that. By helping you learn how to visualize ever deeper and more distant aspects of your self, meditation can even strengthen your belief in God. If your spiritual leader warns you against a personal mindfulness practice, you may be in the wrong religion. You may have to leave it and find another.
- Then, if it’s not a whole religion, is meditation a part of other religions?
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. All mainstream religions have a spiritual side, and some sort of meditation is usually a part of that.
- What is meditation for?
Meditation is utilitarian. Beyond its traditional influences upon the self (losing the self, or identifying it more clearly), it has other important applications: people have used it to concentrate their mental powers for therapeutic purposes: like lowering blood pressure, overcoming addiction, curing insomnia, lessening neurotic behavior, or getting free of medications. It’s used for artistic inspiration, for stress reduction, for needed mental clarity, for conquering desire, for deliberate generation of compassion, for peace-making, for athletic improvement, for preparation for an experience of actual solitude, etc. In the military, meditation is sometimes a part of classes in concentration, in physical control.
4.Can I bring my friends on my trip?
You should bring your friends. Don’t leave them behind.
That question reminds me of one aspect of Buddhism. As with many systems of thought throughout world history, Buddhism had an early schism, as the original teaching began to circulate, and new teachers arrived with new interpretations. One style of Buddhist meditation (the Theravada) suggests that individual enlightenment is the goal. Insofar as the meditation in this class is very loosely based on Buddhist practice, the style encouraged here is called Mahayana, “the big ferry,” in which the contemplator works toward a compassionate, inclusive enlightenment, and, in our day, an environmental consciousness and dedication to peace and justice in the world community. Bring as many friends along with you as you can! But keep in your mind also the implied privilege of meditation; it is so much easier to meditate when we are prosperous and safe from hate and harm—all the more reason to develop an unselfish, compassionate practice, and to share whatever good results that may come to you with others.
My PhD work at Brandeis was about twentieth-century Chile. During the heady days of the Salvador Allende years in that country, a movement formed called “Popular Unity.” It was one of the most outstanding, militantly mutualistic movements in the whole history of the world. At that time the folkloric musical group Quilapayún sang this line—over the sound of their Andean drums and flutes:
“mientras haya miseria, no hay libertad que valga.”
“while misery exists, there is no liberty worth anything.”
In singing these words, they hit upon the core of Big-Ferry teaching: that any kind of freedom gained only for your own self’s sake is worthless. Worthless! You must strive to bring everyone else along. Quilapayún sang these lines all over Europe while fascism descended upon Chile. By the sheer luck of good timing, they happened to be touring, away from their homeland, when the boot came down. Thus they escaped execution. They continued to sing. They didn’t sit in a café in Italy, mourning over their espressos and waiting for someone else to bring freedom back to their native country. As much as possible, they shared the accidental liberty granted them—by their creative work, good luck, and exile—with everyone who was still caught in Chile’s iron cage. They went on singing and raising money and consciousness for fifteen years till they could return home. Their Outer Peace work was supported by a strong core of creativity and compassion. They lived the Mahayana teaching.
There’s another aspect, potentially a sad one, to this answer. If your friends do not want to come with you—I mean, specifically, if they do not acknowledge your personal growth as you come to understand yourself better, if they reject or feel threatened by the changes in you, and they are unable to share your empathy—you may have to leave them behind. This can be very painful.
- Does meditation in the United States have a history that one can study?
Another important question! If you join a movement, of course you want to be sure, when you look around, that other good people are in it and that it is part of a tradition you can be proud of.
After World War II, D.T. Suzuki’s essays brought Zen Buddhism from Japan to the United States. Perhaps he realized that the dominant materialistic culture (ours) on the other side of the world needed to incorporate meditative practice into its daily life. He also may have been leaving behind in Japan a practice and teaching that had become ossified and conservative. Maybe it could be renewed by the chance to hybridize in the West.
Legions of other teachers and teachings arrived on these shores with a similar purpose. Krishnamurti came, trying to bring cosmic consciousness into American education. Ramakrishna, Yogananda, Bhagvan Shri Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Thich Nath Hanh, and many others followed. This land was fertile for mindfulness work—and for the cultivation of yoga—but it hadn’t been that way during its beginnings. Can you imagine some pilgrim doing the Sun Salutation in Puritan 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts?
The Puritans who settled this country saw things in black and white, but there have always been parallel strands of mystical thinkers among us. Sometimes out in the open, sometimes under cover, a variety of contemplative threads were here in our culture, like indigenous Native American vision quests, shamanic Spirit audiences, nature worship, Quaker meetings, monastic orders, and the New England transcendentalist movement of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and of the larger-than-life poet Walt Whitman, who took his fellow transcendentalists outdoors. Whitman offered his hand to any who would stride the continent with him, in the fresh air:
“Wisdom,” Whitman said,
“Cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things
And the excellence of things,
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all
Under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and the floating currents….”
When you take part in meditative practice now, when you join in a session of sitting with your classmates in Inner Peace/ Outer Peace, you are traveling north-American ground well-mapped by all these predecessors, and by the likes of Carl Jung, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Ursula K. LeGuin, Pema Chodron, Joanna Macy, John Legend—
No matter what your personal purpose, and no matter what brought you to this Reader—an interest in conflict transformation, healing, artistic creation, antiracism, or establishing inside you the model for the environmental justice you want to see outside—practicing meditation makes you a member of a tradition in the U.S.A. that has been here forever in some form.
—which brings me to a final, important point that we ought to consider. The image I’ve just shared is majorly of white Americans embracing and carrying on a tradition brought over here for the purpose from somewhere in the East. This image was seriously critiqued by one of the people mentioned above: Gary Snyder, an extraordinary thinker, outdoorsman, poet, and cultural theorist who has been influential since the first Beat Generation days of the 1950’s.
In letters to TriCycle Magazine and to Allen Ginsberg in 1993, Snyder stressed how essential it is that North Americans who study the theory and practice of meditation, recognize an important, unsung contribution to the U.S. mainstream. Ethnic Asian-Americans have lived and worked here for centuries. They were cruelly persecuted and interned here as an “enemy threat” during World War II. All the while many Asian-Americans have carried on their mindfulness practice—a contribution as important as any made by white Americans, and every bit as authentic—or shall we say “more important,” and “more authentic.”
As a white American myself, as a practitioner of a personal contemplative process assembled from many influences, I must follow Gary Snyder’s lead and not make any assumptions about how authentic my practice is. It’s just my practice. I must not claim any originality. I must also be aware that to find the peace and quiet to sit in a practice is a privilege that not everyone has, an act which has come under a critical eye in the age of Black Lives Matter..
The proper attitude really is gratitude: a great thanks for all the models I’ve heard about, read about, seen and shared, from all sources, which have enabled me to develop some positive habits that continue to enrich my life. And gratitude to the life I live, for the chance to keep those habits in practice.