I first sat to meditate at age nine, having read a book on zen from the public library. I don’t know why: no one in my family meditated or encouraged me to do so. It seemed, I guess, exotic, exciting, and full of promise. At that point, and for many years later, meditation seemed as if it would help me “achieve” something, “arrive” somewhere, or gain some sort of mastery. Even with such an initially skewed vision, the practice itself has been incredibly helpful throughout my life, even as my understanding of it has changed significantly though the decades.
Zen, Centering Prayer, kirtan (chanting), mantra recitation, Rosary, Vipassana and Prayer of the Heart have each played an important role in my inner development, my inner understanding of self, other, and world at the level of the Ground of Being. My early interest in Eastern religion and Christian mysticism, my later pursuit of science and my call to priesthood all are rooted in tasting, time and time again, this ground of being accessible through meditation. Here I share a few small steps on this continuing journey that occurred in a Vipassana meditation retreat…
I had arrived late to the dining hall for tea, and looking toward the fruit bowl, I became crestfallen. It looked empty. Upon closer inspection, however, I found one last Granny Smith apple remaining at the bottom of the bowl, and dinner would be had. That apple together with a cup of tea that was one-quarter honey and one-quarter milk would be enough for supper. After all, I had spent about 80% of the day sitting absolutely still practicing body awareness. I was likely as close to living at my base metabolic rate as I had ever been. Neither my initial disappointment nor my later sense of triumph could be vocalized. All retreat participants were bound to absolute silence and no eye contact for the ten days of this retreat.
That apple was about to change how I understood myself. It was about to be the focus of a big learning I would take out of the ashram with me back into the world. But first, a little background. In the summer of 2011, I spent ten days on a group retreat in a clean but basic ashram in western Massachusetts. Awake by 4:00 A.M. each morning, along with one hundred others I would meditate for two hours before breakfast (a simple meal of oatmeal and fruit), three hours before lunch (another simple meal of vegetables and rice), four hours before tea (unlike the British usage, simply tea… with a few pieces of fruit laid out for newcomers), and a final three hours before retiring. There was no talking for ten days. No exercise for ten days. No electronics for ten days. No music for ten days. No eye contact… for ten days.
I did not think this retreat would be difficult for me. After all, I am a daily mediator and accustomed to sitting motionless for up to an hour practicing various forms of inner concentration and energy work. I was very, very wrong. After two days of more than ten hours of sitting, my back muscles were sore and throbbing. By the fourth day, I was fairly certain that the incessant monologue of drivel spewing around in my head would drive me insane. And by the sixth day, the ever-increasing shooting pain I was experiencing in my tailbone every time I sat became so intense that it made me see stars.
Why would someone go through this? For many, the answer – at least at first – often parallels the answer to why someone would seek out and spend so much money and time on psychotherapy. It is the search for integration, a lessening of fear and anxiety, a deeper sense of inner aliveness and creativity. It is essentially a desire to be present in and authentically engaged with the world, the self, and the other.
The carrot at the end of the stick for the deep meditator is fairly formidable; not only can one achieve the healing of psychic traumas and a lowering of anxieties, but as recent research confirms, one can in fact physically change one’s brain. And this changed brain processes the world differently – and better – than the original, unchanged brain was able to do. One’s self-experience becomes that of what the famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow called the “self-actualized” person.
Further down the path of meditation, however, even this “self-actualized” self is left behind; one lays it down and merges with Being itself. This process is indescribable, closest perhaps to the creative process of the artist in the moment when self-awareness has disappeared along with the cognizance that self-awareness has disappeared. While it seems quite uncertain at the time, one can come out the other side of this process – and when one does, there is permanent psychic change. One emerges with a radically new locus of identity, or equally as good, with no locus of identity.
Once I experience that I am truly one with all Being as opposed to assenting to this as a philosophical or scientific conclusion I can no longer “die” or fear death. On the one hand, I now experience that “I” am everywhere, which is equivalent to saying that “I” am not anywhere. This is why, perhaps, theologians often cryptically assert that only God “is.” This is not some rarified form of sublimating the fear of death or the angst of finitude. Rather, this realization arises from our changed and enhanced ability to perceive reality. We leave Plato’s cave by changing how we organize data, i.e., perceive reality, out of so large a quantity of stimuli. The deep meditator, then, is not simply working to heal a narrative or gain a means of creative expression. The healing has to do with the human condition itself, the condition of being in being as well as in Being.
Meditation is not equivalent to simple relaxation or sleep. In sleep, our brains generate delta waves; in meditation, they do not. In deep meditation, our brain wave patterns reveal high amplitudes of alpha and theta waves, which are not present in simple or even intentional relaxation or in sleep. Meditation is, really, a form of inner work, a journey that begins with self-purification and ends with the “oceanic oneness” that is described differently in different faith traditions, but typically includes a sense of well-being, joyfulness, and connectedness with all of reality.
And so, doing my best to be a good student, I sat and sat and sat through hours of pain, trying to be dispassionate and observe what was happening in and to me. After the sixth day, I found a cushy foam block that I placed on my meditation blanket. Relief! I do not think I had ever experienced the level of gratitude I now feel for that foam block. The throbbing back pain was mere child’s play when no longer coupled with the shocks to the tailbone that had been bringing me to tears. I began to be able to “watch” the back pain. Somehow, it hurt a bit less when I gave up the desire for it to be gone. It became mere background, like my pulse.
Anyone who says meditation is “relaxing” hasn’t been practicing all that long. While there is certainly a healing and restorative reality to such practice, there are also difficult times – times when component elements of our chronic anxiety become acute and are healed. One expert in the field, the monk and priest Thomas Keating, calls this process the “dumping of the unconscious.” One can recall the ferocious temptations that scriptures say assaulted both Buddha and Jesus at the time of their inner awakenings for traditional pictures of this process. After such an acute wave passes, the level of chronic anxiety is lowered. One is progressing along the path.
Back to that apple. Right after I had picked up that last green apple, my roommate came into the dining hall. Stealing a sideways glance at him, I saw him peek hopefully into the bowl of fruit. However, this time it was truly empty. His shoulders dropped. He paused. In that moment of pause, I noticed a number of other students standing in sight and reach of both of us. On each of their plates were piled three or four large pieces of fruit. No one made a move to share. I became furious. I took my apple, split it in half with a cleaver left on the table – whack! – and, avoiding eye contact, pushed half toward my roommate. He took it and disappeared.
I sat down with my milk-and-honey tea and my half an apple and was absolutely irate at what seemed to be the overt selfishness of these other “deep meditators.” I am sure my face was red, I felt my pulse quicken, and my face tighten. How dare they? Why come do this work if you’re just a sociopath when it comes down to it? Unable to speak, I imagined a number of conversations where I cut them all down to size and made them feel ashamed.
As my fury rose, as the imagined dialogues gained speed and inner volume, something happened: progress along the path. I began laughing, at first softly, and then (as always happens to me when I try to control laughter) I soon ended up with a bona fide unstoppable case of the giggles. All of a sudden I realized how ridiculous I was. Here I was, having imaginary arguments, being an imaginary superhero crushing the villainy of egotism, without being able to speak. Here I was, having a fit over, well, half an apple. I could imagine a character incarnate, an extension of myself. I would call him Captain Justice; someone I’d seen before. Yes, Captain Justice reared his head often in my life until then, and somehow, for all his righteousness, nothing good ever seemed to come of it.
The concentrative method that was taught to us students during this retreat became more refined as the days wore on and was helpful in allowing the mind to have some focus for its necessary minimum activity. One thing non-meditators do not typically realize is that the mind cannot truly be “blanked” for any extended period of time. After a short time, something will come up, because the brain needs to maintain a certain number of cycles per second to remain alive.
These things that come up – initially short-term worries or fantasies, physical itches and pain, later deep memories, repressed trauma, waves of ecstatic bliss, and deep purgation – they are all best ignored. They come, they pass, and we continue to meditate and practice our concentrative method of corporeal observation. We do not engage them cognitively when in practice; we trust the “deeper mind” to work on them within us. At the deepest level, the “problems” that arrive are pre-cognitive: they cannot be transformed through re-working a narrative or by rational thinking, or even by acting out scenarios or writing letters to our parents, but only through a type of deep wisdom-process that is pre-verbal and exists on a seemingly cellular and/or spiritual level. Some participants would spend a day, or days, weeping; others would sense quite viscerally that parts of their bodies or psyches became “unlocked.”
In regard to the incident of the apple, it’s clear how that unlocking mechanism unfolded. It is not that one should not stand for justice – any moderately actualized person empathizes with the joy and pain of his or her neighbors – but one need not engage the call to justice (or to anything else) compulsively as a reaction. One can find a place of freedom before the “Captain Justice mechanism” takes over, and choose how to respond, both in inner and outer terms. One can choose not to have a temper tantrum in a silent retreat house over half an apple.
One thing that extended periods of meditation bring about is a sort of sensory deprivation. When deprived of the tactile, visual, and aural stimuli, which typically assail the modern person on a minute-by-minute basis, one begins to discover incredibly subtle perceptive abilities within the body itself. I found that I could, after a few days, find and follow my pulse anywhere in my body.
Likewise, if I concentrated on, or “swept over” a part of my body, I was able to experience several levels of vibration occurring in almost every part of the body, the pulse having the lowest frequency (cycles per second). Superimposed on the pulse was a faster wave-like feeling that came after a few days of sitting. Several more days into the practice, I began to experience an electrical-like undulating, buzzing bliss within every part of the body that I concentrated on. This experience was so pleasurable that I could finally understand how certain mystics could give up sex for life with little regret.
Yet the tedium of the hours of sitting began to wear on me. The morning of day seven I woke up and simply did not want to meditate. I walked into the meditation hall at 4:25 A.M., right on time, and took my seat like a good student. But I was not happy. I felt bored, restless, resentful. I knew exactly how this day’s schedule would be (just like day six had been). We had learned the full meditational method by now, and so there was no more “next” thing to learn. This was it; nothing new and exciting today.
This, too, was not a new experience for me. Whenever something in life became routine, mundane, tedious – whether a hobby, a relationship, a career, anything – it was always time for a change. Unlike the experience of non-localized identity, this long-term behavior of mine is ultimately driven by the fear of death. Routine equals limitation, equals finitude, equals death. No thanks.
But there I was. Now it was 4:31 A.M. Time to meditate. I sat there stewing in my resentments, and a massive itch began on my nose. Now I was livid. It was too late to scratch; the meditation period had begun. Just then, something unexpected happened: progress on the path. A voice that was and wasn’t my own sounded within me and simply said, “You’re going to sit here and meditate anyway. You can do it with all this resentment, or you can simply do it.” I decided to simply do it. And day seven was an extraordinary day.
Masters of meditation, from the Buddha to St. Teresa of Avila, advise against seeking the visions and mountaintop experiences that sometimes happen in meditation. If they come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t. Meditative practice, like anything else, can become narcissistic; we can seek to accumulate cooler-than-thou experiences that we simply cannot wait to share with the less spiritually “advanced” among us. We can try to scale from glory to glory, and rather than moving toward the unveiling, dissolution and reconstruction of the deep self, we simply adorn our frightened egos with a new type of accessory: spiritual experience. This practice is not about filling the ego, but emptying it. Like the great master artists who sought to destroy their own work, the serious meditators do not aim to surround themselves with ornaments of achievement.
Additionally, it’s good to remember that the whole point of the adventure of meditation is not to meditate well. The point is to live well. The point of ten days of meditation is not found in the oddly blissful experiences of the body that come from sensory deprivation, but rather is found in halved apples and the voice that comes when your nose itches. The point is simply to practice being fully present and fully alive, and, like any behaviorist approach, the more we do it, the more we change what “normal” is.
Eventually, the masters tell us, being fully present and fully alive become the new normal. And then life is a joyful, blissful adventure. All the pieces of armor we carry – yes, all of it – our fears, complexes, fixations, and addictions – wash away over time. Over time, our brains will be re-wired. Over time, our anxiety will lessen. And perhaps over time, we will have the experience of the very self we have made so very healthy in order to emerge as a participant in, and identifier with, all of life itself, dissolve. And in the meantime, there are good lessons to be learned from apples, itchy noses, and foam blocks.