Meditation- Roping the Mind
by Michael Maciel
(this article appears in the February 2003 issue of The Edge Newspaper)
What is meditation? We all have our ideas about it, some that we learned in books, some that we heard personally from a teacher, and some that pivot around a really great experience we once had - an experience that defines for us in some small way what it is to have a close encounter with God. My experience is nothing special, no bright lights or choruses of angels. It's just, well more like hard work, really. In fact, it's a lot like that - like hard work.
I've heard about the experiences of others, saints and gurus, the visitations from God, the open doors into the Infinite, the visions of paradise, and I've had all of those to one degree or another, but those things are not meditation - they are experiences. Meditation is not about experiences. In a way, it is exactly the opposite. And this is why it is such hard work.
There is a Yoga Sutra that says, "Meditation is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind stuff." This gives me the image (because I grew up in the western United States) of a rodeo cowboy, lasso in hand, warily approaching a steer in the rink, having a kind of staring contest and wondering which way the animal is going to bolt. There's really no time to think in a situation like that. It's more of a feel, or so I imagine, springing from one's gut, from the solar plexus - not a running dialogue in the mind. "Let's see now, if he runs thataway, so will I, and if he runs the other way, well then I guess I will too." No, that's way too cumbersome. It's more like, and this is going to sound a little like science fiction, but it's as though you position yourself in front of the cow (which is the mind in this analogy) and you stay there, no matter which way the cow turns. You are like a projected image right in front of the cow's face that it cannot escape.
In reality, of course, it's you who are stationary, and it's the mind that's in motion. What happens in meditation, when one persists, is the realization that the mind is external to one's Self.
A body of thought
Since the advent of Eastern Philosophy here in the West, we have come to recognize that we are not our body. This is standard Hindu and Buddhist doctrine. The body is impermanent, transitory, and, in a very real sense, unreal. Though we seem trapped in its cycles of growth and decay, we feel pretty confident that it is but a garment we wear and not the final resting place for our spirit. There is plenty of literature that we can turn to in order to prop up our opinions about that. Living in a secular environment dominated by scientific materialism, however, keeps us continually on the defensive in this regard, because scientists claim that the body, and matter in general, is as real as anything ever gets. Mind and consciousness are only the effects of neural firings in the brain and nothing more. Meditation, from this standpoint, is simply a means to relax, to reduce stress, and to improve one's overall state of health. And though meditation does provide these benefits, the claim that these are the only things it provides is, of course, pure cow manure. Meditation opens us to the mind and the presence of God, which are always greater than manifest reality. If you would like the whole argument on this point, I heartily recommend Huston Smith's most recent book, Why Religion Matters.
Observing the mind in action is step one in the practice of meditation. Step two is the gradual realization that the one who is doing the observing is separate and distinct from the mind. This is a subtle and somewhat tricky maneuver. The tendency is to make an object out of the observer so that you can observe it observing. If you find yourself saying, "Oh, there it is!" then you know you're still in the mind. But if you suddenly find yourself observing the mind, looking at it as though it were an "object", then, like a dreamer waking from sleep, you discover that you are the observer. You no longer feel like the little man or little woman sitting behind your forehead looking out at the world through your eyes.
I believe it was Meister Eckhart who coined the term "Godhead". It sounds like an impossibly opaque theological concept, something way "out there", like the center of the universe. But there are similar words that place it easily within reach, words like "trailhead" and "headwaters". A trailhead is the point where a trail begins, and the headwaters of a river is where the river begins. Like water from an underground spring, the Godhead is where God emerges from within us, at the center of our being. In India, pilgrims travel to the headwaters of the sacred River Ganges, an outward ritual symbolizing what we do when we seek God in meditation. Like the mystical land of Narnia in C.S. Lewis' Tales of Narnia, the waters of the Ganges emerge mysteriously from a place "deeper in and higher up", out of the glacial caverns of the Himalayan Mountains. The river itself symbolizes the flow of divine grace into the world, the source of life, light, and love. In meditation, we seek that same source within ourselves, which we discover, if we do it right, is not in our head but deep within the well of our being. We cannot peer into it, which is to say we can't understand it, but we can definitely merge with it, backing into it, as it were. We become it, and it becomes us.
Who am I?
Let me offer an interpretation of something that Jesus said that goes to the heart of meditation. Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do they say that I, the Son of Man, am?" A couple of them said that people regarded Jesus as Elijah or one of the other prophets, and someone said that he was John the Baptist returned from the dead. But then Peter said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Now, in those days, the sun held a preeminent place in the universe. It was the source of all life - the Godhead. The words son and sun were nearly synonymous - both implied the "first born" of the Father. When Jesus refers to the "son" of man, he is really referring to the life of man. He is asking the timeless philosophical question: does the power of life originate in the flesh, or is it a universal spirit permeating the flesh from above? In other words, is life a product of matter or the animator of it? This question is at the heart of the science/religion debate today. Jesus is telling us that the life within us is the life of God. There is only one life.
As it turns out, Peter is right. He is so right, in fact, that Jesus gives him an immediate field promotion, because he got his answer not from his intellect but straight from the mind of God. He changes his name from Cephas to Peter. Cephas is a Hebrew word for stone or pebble. It is the lesser form of the word caiaphas, which means "rock". Peter also means rock, from the Greek word petros. Caiaphas, as you may remember, was the High Priest at the time, which meant that he was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple, which was the only place where a mortal could hear God's voice. Jesus then goes on to say that upon this "rock" he will build his church. Some theologians over-literalize this to mean the person of Peter, whom they regard as the first pope. But, what Jesus is saying is that it's the act of getting our answers straight from God that constitutes the foundation of Christianity. He is taking the outer form and subordinating it to the inner reality, as it should have been all along. Spiritually, he is replacing Caiaphas with Peter, showing that everyone has the Holy of Holies within themselves and does not need someone else to go in for them.
The Rock of Ages
The most solid place within us is the Godhead. It stands at the center of us like an open door, through which we cannot see, but out of which we can feel the never-ending flow of God's presence. It is the "object" of our meditation practice. Meditation, therefore, is a sacred act. It is the acknowledgement of the foundation of our being, the source of our life, and the supplier of all our truths. When we are in touch with it, answers bubble up from the wellspring of our soul. These answers are not a product of our mind, but are from the infinite mind of God. The more we "know" in our intellect, the less we can receive from God. Meditation is the act of not knowing so that we may know. Or, as it says in the Old Testament, "Be still and know that I am God."