Saturday, April 26, 2008

Why Meditate?

With a picture of his spiritual mentor, John Main, behind him, Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, came to Bangkok this week to speak to the small WCCM group here about meditation. Inspired by Main, a Irish Benedictine monk and priest who recovered a tradition of contemplative prayer developed in the 4th century by Desert father John Cassian, the WCCM was founded in 1991 after Main's death at the urging of Fr. Bede Griffiths. Fr. Laurence left banking in England to follow Main to Montreal where he was ordained a priest. He now travels tirelessly around the world, shepherding more than 1,500 WCCM groups in over 110 countries. The Bangkok group was formed twenty years ago, according to one of its founders, Emilie Ketudat. I saw Fr. Laurence last in 2006 at the Griffiths Centennary conference at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, but I also heard him speak years ago on a program in San Francisco with Fr. Basil Pennington, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, the other Christian meditation organization (think Chevy and Ford).

Fr. Laurence, who has published many books (including a dialogue on Christianity with the Dalai Lama called The Good Heart: a Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus), is an articulate spokesman for the value of meditation in a Christian context. But as a resigned Catholic, and a Christian now only in the metaphorical sense, I was looking for ecumenical wisdom. The topic of the all-day meeting was "Deepening Our Practice," which seemed to apply across the board, for a Buddhist as well as a Christian. Indeed, at the end of the day Pandit Bhikku said, "99% of what he said could have come from a Dhamma talk. It was only when we got to the Mass, that I was left scratching my head." The deeper question for me is: Why meditate? Even some Thai Buddhist claim it is not really necessary (the folks who focus on the metaphysical Abhidhamma texts). While sitting still may sound easy, anyone who tries it soon realizes that confronting the hell of your own thoughts can be a horrifying experience.

"At the heart of every religion is the experience of mystery, the contemplative spiritual core," Fr. Laurence told the group, which included Catholics, Lutherans and Buddhists. In "The Way of Peace," a WCCM initiative, Freeman and the Dalai Lama have met with others in "inter-religious intimacy and friendship" at Bodhgaya in India, a Benedictine monastery in Italy and in Belfast to discuss common ground. For the contemplative monk, God is the name of "a mystery to enter into, a relationship." While Buddhists may characterize this mystery beyond the chattering mind as emptiness, sunyata, Christians see it as a fullness, the space between words filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. "We can know ourselves deeper than thought," Fr. Laurence said, and he presented a two-step method of meditation: 1. Letting go, take the attention off your thoughts, and, 2. Choose where to place your attention, on a word or mantra (he suggested the Aramaic word "marantha" which means "come Lord").

The Christian church had long forgotten its contemplative core, Freeman said, and employed the metaphor of a pair of reading glasses with one lens missing, an disorienting experience that actually happened to him. "There are two ways in church tradition of approaching the experience of God, the cataphatic and the apophatic." The first is the way of words, dogmatic and theological pronouncements, and the second, which had been marginalized for many years, is the way of silence. He told the story of St. Thomas Aquinas who spent many years writing his Summa Theologica before encountering the mystery and realizing that "everything I have written is straw." And St. Augustine, who said, "if you can understand it, it isn't God." For the German mystic Meister Eckhart, God, could only be found in silence. But Freeman believes you need both lenses to see, both approaches "to integrate the spiritual journey with life."

So there is a mystery ("the Kingdom of God is the experience of the mystery of God's presence") beyond the war of words and it can be encountered in a meditative practice (aka contemplative or "pure prayer), and this silencing is an activity common to all religious paths and spiritual traditions. In some, however, it has become a way to deny and escape the world. This other-worldly theology has become anathema to me. Fr. Laurence called on early theologian Origen to explain the worldly purpose, saying that meditation or prayer "calms the mind, reduces sin, and promotes good deeds." Freeman called Bangkok "a very agitated city," and said that meditation would promote a calmness leading to clarity and right judgment. Sin, he explained, is "what we do when we are not calm; the ego becomes enflamed." The afternoon session was devoted to showing how meditation, although a counter-cultural act, creates community in the face of hyper-individualism. In Sarajevo and in East Timor, WCCM groups are helping to ease tensions by teaching meditation. Children and convicts have benefited from the technique. "Wounded hearts carry seeds of more violence," Fr. Laurence said. Dialogue rooted in the practice of meditation can promote good deeds by contributing towards healing in the world.

It sometimes sounds too good to be true. Patricia Aburdene, who wrote Megatrends in 1982 with John Naisbitt, now believes in Megatrends 2010 that the solution to capitalism's problems is meditation (it will spiritualize the CEOs). I have my doubts. Introduced to meditation by Eido Shimano Roshi at the New York Zen Center in 1982, I purchased a zafu from the Integral Yoga store and studied Ram Dass's little book on meditation. For my first sittings, I used a three-minute egg timer, and sitting cross-legged on the pillow I tried to count to ten silently on the out breath. I couldn't do it without becoming distracted and forgetting what number I was on. It took me a few years to count to ten successfully. My meditation practice has had its ups and downs. When my marriage broke up, I joined Everyday Dharma in Santa Cruz and participated earnestly, sitting every morning on my own, with the group once a week, and on frequent retreats in the zendo and at Spirit Rock in Marin County. Meditation was also part of the ritual at our Sangha Shantivanam gatherings, this time with a Christian tinge. But that routine was broken by my move to Bangkok. Now I am trying to resume my practice, but my knees are stiffer and I left my cushion and bench back in California. In addition, my motivation has weakened.

So once again I wonder: what's it all about. What does Christian meditation have in common with its Buddhist (not to mention Hindu and Sufi) counterpart? "The real work of meditation," according to a WCCM brochure, "is to attain harmony of body, mind and spirit." The Creator, through the words of the psalmist advised: "Be still and know that I am God," and St. Paul wrote that "we do not know how to pray, but the spirit prays within us." Cassian, who influenced St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, believed that simple and constant repetition of a word or phrase was the best way of casting out distractions and trivial chatter from the mind, in order that it might rest in stillness in God. Thomas Merton, in his many writings which helped to resurrect this tradition of contemplative prayer, said that everything, even holy thoughts, would burn up in the fires of contemplation.

I sat yesterday in my room on the rectangle cushion I bought at Big C in Siam Square. Its fairly easy to sit now without moving and to watch my leg fall asleep. I repeated the mantra "marantha," not rhythmically but gently insistent. Within minutes my mind had wandered off to plan mundane chores as well as great deeds. Oops! Back to the mantra. Soon I was remembering a not-so-happy event dozens of years ago and feeling little nibbles of anger and resentment. Oops again! Back to the mantra. After about twenty minutes I found the urge to open my eyes overwhelming, and decided that was enough. This is what my meditation has been like for perhaps twenty years. No bliss, no wisdom, no enlightenment. I call it the Oops technique.

Fr. Laurence, who said "in a sense we are all beginning," called meditation "creative work" which involves going back to our source, to where God called us into being and where we will experience God's love. It's not a matter of becoming present to God, because "God is present to us or we would not exist." I have neither experienced God in my meditation, nor the stillness of nibbana, but only the steady drivel of my thoughts which threaten to bore me to death. I have not been conscious of the space between my breaths, just as I cannot sense when the right brain takes over from my left (or vice versa). What I do understand, only intellectually I'm afraid, is that the mind is an unruly servant and needs to be disciplined. Fr. Laurence advises that discipline, "not a popular word," is necessary for freedom to flourish. All spiritual paths teach that the self must be mastered, transcended or abandoned, and that knowledge or wisdom comes from "poverty of spirit" (in Christian terms) rather than possessiveness.

I'm afraid the goal is too glorious for me in this lifetime. My self is a petty tyrant but it is the only rock on which I know I can stand. I try to be kind, to tell the truth, and to not harm any living soul. As I wrote the other day, my love of this world, in all of its beautiful tangible forms, is too precious for me to want to escape it for some out-of-range chimera. Enlightenment and/or salvation is an elusive butterfly. Should I continue to meditate? A foolish consistency, as Emerson pointed out, is the hobgoblin of little minds. Ask me next week.


littlebang said...

I had a very good day at the event. And met some nice people. I hope we can invite Fr Lawrence to speak for our group sometime, it was refreshing listening to him.
You know every oops moment is a mindful one. And every moment of mindfulness is a hammer blow at the chains .
No one crash bangs or whollops their way to enlightenment, but like the mountain that rises up an inch a year invisibly ... despite only noticing the avalanche, the mountain goes all that way up.

Seema said...

On the topic, why meditate, I would like to say that we meditate to connect with our source. We meditate for silence and peace. We meditate to become thoughtless. We meditate to become healthier. We meditate to improve ourselves, both mentally and physically. We meditate to accelerate our spiritual journey.