Archive for the 'meditation' Category

Safe spiritual practice

May 18, 2014

I know I can’t teach it, I am not even sure I can describe what I do to achieve my own, but I do know that it’s an important issue for me and one that plenty of teachers of prayer and meditation don’t pay enough attention to, from my point of view.

I am thinking about it this morning because of a comment I read to a NYTimes piece about college campuses grappling with the issue of students having traumatic memories triggered by works they encounter in class and the question of whether instructors should provide warnings.  The comment was by someone who writes as “GrammyofWandA” in Maine.  She wrote about how meditation foisted on her during class by a teacher triggered flashbacks, the difficulties she had with that, and how she handled the problem.

I wrote a reply, because I was grateful that someone had raised the issue.  I’ve encountered a version of it.  If someone insists I follow a guided meditation or meditate with them, I can run into real trouble.  I can even run into trouble with meditation at home, again, especially if I use a guide on a CD or something.  My mind can go much further afield than is intended, I can get flashbacks, I can get all kind of emotional stuff bubbling up from within me (I’m not even sure all of it is mine), and boy, can I get “spam.”

But I do have plenty of ways to engage in prayer and meditation that work for me.  I have no idea whether they would work for others, what else about me factors into why they apparently work for me.

Thinking about how much I don’t want to describe either these factors or how I engage in prayer and meditation reminds me of people who really don’t want to peel off their layers and open themselves up.

But, as I’ve written about before, what I want to avoid often seems to be what would unravel a knot for me, even when I am unaware I have such a knot.  Maybe I’ll give it a try, that is, try to explain what I do and how I got here, but it will probably be piecemeal, in separate posts, if I do.  If I had to take the whole thing on at once, I would probably quail, just like someone faced with the task of trying to actually develop a spiritual practice in one fell swoop — I think it makes more sense to try to take such a project in steps.


May 8, 2013

My parents had friends we used to see socially, our families even vacationed together.  They had three daughters, one my sister’s age, one mine, and one a few years younger.  My dad and Mr. F. loved classical music, especially Mahler, and they had known each other since college, I think, and were both engineers.

The other day I was looking up how to pronounce “dhyana,” a word for deep meditation associated with Hinduism.  And the way I heard it pronounced is the way Mrs. F. always pronounced my name Diana, which she did with great volume and drama.

This is an illustration of a phenomenon I have encountered before.  The similarity between my name and a word for deep meditation indicates quite a lot more to me than a seemingly idiosyncratic pronunciation of my name; it’s as if something has come into better focus, as if the energy now shows up in a more accessible form, the piece of the puzzle has found its place.

I’ve known for a while that I have been filling in a stage of spiritual development, for someone who feared they would bottom out in it, that is penultimate.  Being able to put a name to it helps me move to another phase, either of this same project or of my own work.

“Monkey mind”

April 21, 2013

I’ve never really liked the term myself, but I think it’s the one people generally use in connection with identifying the part of the mind which is not involved in spiritual experiences and understanding of the divine.  Why people who write about religion write as if they’ve never heard of the distinction between the monkey mind and other parts of our mental apparatus beats me.  Of course if we confine ourselves to discussion of apprehending God through this part of the mind (the monkey mind) we wind up with talk about “imagining” God.  But that’s like discussing rendering a song with the human voice on the assumption that human beings can only speak and not sing.

Of course, I’m reacting to something I just read:  “The Benefits of Church,” by T.M. Luhrmann, in the NYTimes.

Make friends with your subconscious

November 18, 2012

I should be outside pruning rose bushes, but I just wanted to write something brief using a different type of approach to, not so much the subjects of my previous two posts, but to a comment I wrote in response to one of those NYTimes sort of philosophical pieces in “The Stone” subset of their Opinionator section.

My point is about how there are multiple strands to our “selves.”  Most of us using the internet dwell (and overly so, in my opinion) in only some of these strands and may not be aware there are others.

So that’s why I called this post “Make friends with your subconscious.”  People not adverse to theism or spiritual development tend to do this through prayer and meditation, but I think other people may do it through the arts (especially music), sports, nature, communicating with pets.  I think some people may do through higher math, but I think it’s trickier to lose the intellectualizing self enough through doing that as a way to be in the strand of the self that slides around without the constraints the intellectualizing strand has.  Of course, some people do this (whether intentionally or not) in ways that cause them and others distress, and it can become extreme enough that we label it an illness (as in, mental illness) — I certainly don’t advocate doing that.

But just as we talk about parents spending quality time with their children, I think we need to spend quality time with our subconscious.

God brooks no rival

October 26, 2011

What I actually intended to write about this morning was about how to square a relationship with God with a relationship with a fellow human being.

I hear humor sometimes in what I hear in the universe.  Once I was putting away a child’s doll made out of wool, and I heard the pun that it was a “dolly lana.”  In a similar fashion, I once heard the phrase “God brooks no rivals” as a phrase to meditate on.   Given the direction my life seemed to have taken when I became a widow, I first saw it as kind of an absolute.  But then it occurred to me, that with humor, it might actually be a puzzle in a way, that it could be taken as one of those sentences that changes meaning with how it is written, like the string of words “Woman without her man is nothing” that changes meaning depending on how it is punctuated.  So now I’ve being trying to see not only how to “re-punctuate” my meditation, but what that means for my life.

I was dipping into The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, because it occurred to me after having a day yesterday like I used to have with God, how that compares to forgoing that in favor of having a day with a human being.  For me, the day with God has become a lot easier than the day with people, it’s like a big relief.  It occurred to me this morning shortly after I got up that maybe that’s selfish, and that maybe it would be a great act of something, some kind of a gift, I guess, to put that aside at least partly in order to relate to other people.  Then the task becomes how to do that, because I know I need to maintain the God relationship, too.  Lewis makes the point that loving God is a safe bet, while giving one’s heart to some else includes the risk it will be broken, includes allowing oneself to be vulnerable.  In a way, to insulate oneself from the consequences of giving one’s heart to another is a selfish act that shows how selfishness backfires, here by keeping us from experiencing some wonderful things life offers.  I think what spoke to me this morning in a way that I could work with better is that taking on the costs to oneself of human (I’m pretty sure this is not about getting another dog) love relationships can be thought of as a gift to the other and a manifestation of that love.

For me, the part I can’t figure out is how to toggle between the two without losing either or, in the alternative, how to conceptualize the two so that there is no opposition.  If I lose myself in a human love relationship completely, do I necessarily lose my current connection with God?  I suppose not if I am relating to the divine within that person as well as to their human details.  And maybe that’s it, that I don’t relate sufficiently to both simultaneously in people, and that if I did, I would not only see the different ways to write that sentence but also not see them as mutually exclusive.

Conglomerations in religious thought

August 29, 2011

This is an expansion on the comment I wrote in response to Ross Douthat’s column in the NYTimes today.

When I read books about other people’s religions, or when I talk to other people about them, I am reminded of grading undergraduate papers years ago for a classical civilization class for which I was a teaching assistant.  The students were bright, the writing was fine, but an occasional paper would be what I have stored in my memory as “ingeniously wrong.” It was as if the student had gotten a couple of digits in a telephone number transposed, or something, and hence dialed a wrong number — something was off, and significantly so, but how it had happened was less than initially obvious, and I would spend a lot of time on those papers trying to disentangle what was correct from what was error (of fact, of logic, due to ignorance about something else, of how pieces fit together) so I could explain it to the student in my notes.

A lot of religious writing strikes me similarly.  It looks to me like a tangled mass of reports of other people’s spiritual understandings, misinterpretations of other people’s spiritual understandings (and misunderstandings), intellectual thoughts based on these understandings and misinterpretations, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with uncomfortable emotional reactions to life events, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional reactions to damaged people and their behavior, creative writing, and other forms of art.

I touched on one of these in passing in my thoughts on people who think they are the messiah.  We, I think, usually criticize such people for thinking they have special understandings, but I think actually the nub of their problem is thinking that they are unique — which seems to me to be due to a confluence of the teachings of some major religion (or religions) that there is a unique messiah, with the ego of the person and its quest for uniqueness in how it sees itself in relation to others and to the whole.

I could probably try to get myself to list a bunch of what I consider misunderstandings in religions, as well as a list of understandings that I share, but I really don’t feel called to do either — and it would be a little like trying to establish peace through war, a little oxymoronic.  But I would like to report on a finding I discovered while helping a few people who were spiritually stuck.

The mind with which we think our thoughts in our languages is not our only equipment for perception.  I remember reading how some Catholic theologians and clerics were negatively disposed to having their congregants meditate, and I think something about “centering prayer” was developed eventually out of that controversy.  My reason for bringing this up is that the theologians and clerics were right, I think, in their sense that meditation will open us up in ways that can let in all kinds of things; the issue is, I think, one of separating baby from bathwater — meditation makes use of that other equipment we have, and that’s important, and, I would say, necessary.  How to use that equipment safely is a separate issue.

What I discovered with these people who were spiritually stuck whom I was helping was that they didn’t realize they were using their intellectual equipment to try to perceive in the spiritual realm — they thought an idea that they thought was a spiritual understanding.  It reminded me of trying myself as a child to overcome what people told me was a speech impediment: I really didn’t understand for a long time that a “k” sound or a hard “c” sound or a hard “g” sound were being generated in the back of the throat — I was expressing them in the front of my mouth and they were coming out as “t” sounds and “d” sounds.  Once I got that there was a difference, another way of making a sound that I was unfamiliar with, that part of my speech impediment (I also had trouble with initial “r” sounds) was gone.

So, that’s the first step, as I see it: recognizing our different kinds of equipment for perception, distinguishing between understandings such as we get through meditation and thoughts we develop through our intellectual activity.  What I think lead to such trouble in the realm of religion are other people’s intellectual ideas taught as spiritual understandings, because (1) they are idiosyncratic (even if shared by others) human ideas, (2) adoption of them is had through emotions and the intellect, not through spiritual perception of our own, and (3) they are difficult to amend or abandon because they are adhered to in a rigid and uncritical way, as a doctrine of human construction. And our intellects are involved with our egos, our hopes, desires, fears, and dislikes — so, our intellectual ideas are colored and distorted by these extraneous concerns, concerns that are not present in the information we perceive through understandings through other equipment we use for perception, such as when people meditate.  (Let me just note here that I distinguish meditation here from prayer only in order to try to communicate this other mode of perception — because I actually see prayer in its pure form as the same thing as meditation, I just think that by now and especially in our culture prayer is often engaged in by (only) the intellectual mind.  I see using pure prayer or meditation to hear the universe and then using our intellectual minds to translate what we’ve heard into our languages and with reference to consensus reality.)

The universe, I think, is pretty oblivious to our human misunderstandings of its workings — we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, the universe will not change the way it works in order to be congruent with our (mis)understanding of it.  So, I wish we would talk more about how we perceive — prayer, creative arts, philosophizing, scientific thinking, etc. — and how they fit together.  Maybe that way we would be more likely to use the apt mode for the kind of perceptual endeavor being undertaken in a given situation.