Ideas Presented in Chapter 5
Idea #24: Learn About Meditative Maturation
Growing, maturing, and expanding through meditation requires regular experience of meditation. That is quite clear to anyone taking this course. But now, in this final Idea, we add a balancing thought: meditative growth also requires interaction with information and ideas. Even a little bit of this every now and then goes a long way. We suggest that you focus on maturation, i.e. the growth-inducing effects of meditation, because that is what matters the most. But, you will want to explore some of the rich culture and history of meditation, too. In many cases, you cannot separate culture and theories of growth, and we shouldn’t even try to. There are many books in print, both new ones and classics. A listing of the ones cited in the Course are given in the Appendix. There are hundreds of websites to visit, and many represent physical sites that welcome visitors. Even an occasional dip, a little sip, here and there, makes a big difference in keeping an interest in meditation active.
"Meditative maturation" might be a mouthful, but we are talking about a topic that is more than a mouthful. It covers a long and wide terrain. It starts in the local terrain—the benefits in family and personal life. From there, it moves out into the wide fields of long-term improvement—the stabilizing and honing of a life. And it reaches high into the hills and then into the mountains of truly advanced conditions of mind and body—the realm of transformation and enlightenment.
Meditative maturation is part nature and part conscious engagement. Together, these comprise an art. Developing an art of any kind requires both direct experience and reflection. These two interweave to make the fabric of wisdom. Experience is the warp and reflection the weft. The warp of experience provides the medium in which we make sense of the weft of ideas—the yarns. The meditative life proactively puts these two together, making a fabric that is both useful and beautiful.
The following sections will get you started. First comes Perennial Philosophy,
the world-wide worldview that underlies many Eastern meditation traditions, and then
mindfulness, an important concept for any meditative pathway. Then we peek
at enlightenment, an illusive concept, to say the least, but a critically
important one for many meditative traditions. Finally, we discuss spirituality
and right action. If this sounds like the outline for an entire book, you sense correctly. This
subject is a long, deep, complex river.
There is an idea that lies like earth beneath almost all ideas you will encounter in meditative development. It is an old idea and one that “won’t go away”, which is why it came to be called the “perennial philosophy.” You may not always hear it being named, but once you know of it, you can find it in many places in Eastern and Western psychology, philosophy and religion. Unfortunately, you can get an excellent and expensive college education without running directly into this core concept. Many people who know of this term associate it with Aldous Huxley’s book, The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1945. But, the idea is older than that, and it still excites new thinking among philosophers. So, let’s hear from a newer voice, Ken Wilber. Wilber is one of the most sweepingly comprehensive thinkers of any time, capable of integrating the streams of human thought and endeavor, and has a masterful understanding of meditation and its effects on human development.
Known as the “perennial philosophy”—“perennial” precisely because it shows up across cultures and across the ages with many similar features—this worldview has, indeed, formed the core not only of the world’s great wisdom traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism to Taoism, but also of many of the greatest philosophers, scientists and psychologists of both East and West, North and South. So overwhelmingly widespread is the perennial philosophy…that it is either the single greatest intellectual error ever to appear in humankind’s history—an error so colossally widespread as to literally stagger the mind—or it is the single most accurate reflection of reality yet to appear…
Central to the perennial philosophy is the notion of the Great Chain of Being. Reality is not one-dimensional; it is not a flatland of uniform substance stretching monotonously before the eye. Rather, reality is composed of several different but continuous dimensions…reaching from the lowest and most dense and least conscious to the highest and most subtle and most conscious… Sometimes the Great Chain is presented as having just three major levels: matter, mind, and spirit. Other versions give five levels: matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. Some of the yogic systems give literally dozens…
The central claim of the perennial philosophy is that men and women can grow and develop (or evolve) all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself, therein to realize a “supreme identity” with God-head—the ens perfectissimum toward which all growth and evolution yearns. [The Eye of Spirit, Shambhala, 1997, p. 38-39]
So, reality has layers, or dimensions. Now, you already knew that, at least with respect to matter. Matter is like nesting eggs. On the surface of a piece of bark, there is an easy-to-see, easy-to-understand substance—brown, coarse, earthy wood. But as you travel inward with a microscope, the scenery changes right away. Characteristics of color, smell, texture and human meaning totally dissolve into another co-existing world nested within. The world of molecules has characteristics and rules as complex as those of human societies. It is its own layer of reality. Take another dive in the submarine microscope, and the molecular world dissolves into an atomic one with yet another set of laws and characteristics. This kind of dissolving of one world and emergence of another goes on for several more layers into the subatomic domains until nothing remains that could be called solid. No packets or packages or particles. Just waves of energy. Powerful, pulsating, pushing, and pulling.
The perennial philosophy says all creating is nested like this, but not just in a physical dimension available to the microscope. Some dimensions are only accessible with the “microscope” of meditation. This is why the perennial philosophy takes special note of the nesting that exists within the human mind and heart. Our subjective depths are profound compared to what is commonly seen on the surface. Our thoughts on the surface may be like bark, but at their depth, they are waves of silent energy.
Coming to know more about the inner domains, and coming to live from several domains at once may sound like science fiction — and actually not seem all that attractive. But, as we have noted before in this course, variations in consciousness are common daily experiences. Being awake and in your zone throughout the day is a level of consciousness. Being groggy, grumpy and out of touch is another. There’s not much debate as to which is better. Meditation practices, especially those that allow an opening of the mind and heart, allow a casual, gradual, comfortable, awakening of the deeper domains of consciousness. And, it happens all too slowly for many practitioners. Remember the fractal line? So there is plenty of time to get used to each layer as it unfolds. It is a beautiful, calm, ride—like a sitting of Natural Meditation.Meditation and Mindfulness
As you explore ideas about meditation, you will soon come across the term mindfulness. It is a values-based attention to what is happening in and around you. It has become one of the most widely used terms in the West to define the meditative mentality, although it does not apply equally to all forms of meditation. Many teachers insist that meditation alone is not enough, and some say it can be dangerously amoral without attention to values and right action. Their approach combines sitting meditation with active mindfulness applied to a teaching on right action, such as the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments or the Buddhist Five Precepts.
Mindfulness, like concentration, is both a characteristic of practice and the fruit of practice. Whereas concentration refers to a keen, penetrating awareness of a single chosen object, mindfulness refers to a fluid, open awareness of the many objects and conditions that present themselves in the "here and now.” It is values-based, meaning the awareness emerges from and rests in deeply held philosophical positions about what is worth preserving and creating.
Attentiveness is an important concept for any journey of self-discovery and growth. The value of living mindfully is so obvious it almost hurts to restate it, yet we seem to need reminders of it every day. This need in monastic settings has led to the development of formal mindfulness practices to help practitioners live in the present. Whether reciting a scripture or washing a breakfast bowl, one aims at that which is true and present and important, right here and right now. One of America’s foremost teachers of meditation in the Zen tradition, Shunryu Suzuki, leaves no doubt that mindfulness is what Zen practice is all about:
There is a saying, "To catch two birds with one stone." That is what people usually try to do. Because they want to catch too many birds they find it difficult to be concentrated on one activity, and they may end up not catching any birds at all…Of course, it is often necessary to think or prepare before we act. But right thinking does not leave any shadow…If you leave a trace of your thinking, you will be attached to the trace…To leave a trace is not the same as to remember something…but we should not become attached to what we have done…In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. Zen is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. [Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, pp. 62]
It is not a “burning completely” if it doesn’t embrace all the deepest, most meaningful parts of yourself. That is why mindfulness is a values-based attention. When practicing it, you might try to have a deliberate dwelling on the very thing you are doing, like washing a bowl with full attention to the soap, the oatmeal particles, the smell of the bubbles, etc. But, when trying to live mindfully in the dramas of the day, it extends beyond physical actions to the interior actions of personal intentions, desire, and opinions. It also extends to the non-concrete environmental factors such as social relationships, priorities, and ethical situations. Awareness of these non-physical factors must be active in order to make good choices. This social/ethical dimension to mindfulness is a critical element in navigating life and creating right action.
Picture two people: one is a monk washing his breakfast bowl silently in the wood stove-heated water in a rustic kitchen high in the snowy mountains of Colorado, thinking of nothing but removing the remnants of oatmeal from the bowl. The second is a mother in a clean suburban kitchen in New Jersey washing the plastic bowl of her three-month old and thinking about her neighbor’s daughter’s marital problems. Which of these seems to be doing a mindfulness practice? Of course, the monk. Now let's add some social context to these scenarios…
…As the monk washes the bowl, he hears a child who is visiting for the weekend taunting the monastery dog in the yard. The dog is making a low intense growl punctuated by sharp yelps. The boy is laughing and shouting at the dog. The monk hears these sounds but lets them pass by as he focuses intently on the bowl in the cooling soap water. Soon another monk goes into the yard and brings the boy inside, explaining that the dog has been sick lately and needs a rest. A scratch on the boy’s leg is examined and he is taken to the bathroom to clean it. The bowl has been washed most mindfully, but the washer has missed some important social and ethical factors that are right there in his here and now.
…As the mother washes the bowl, she thinks about her neighbor who will be arriving in fifteen minutes having just called asking to borrow some kids' supplies because her daughter is coming to stay for a few days with her two children. The mother is mentally preparing a box of helpful things, one of which is the bowl being washed. She has turned off the TV so that she can attend to this task. She washes the bowl half-mindedly amidst mental images of her neighbor’s house and the cramped quarters for the visiting daughter and grandchildren. She mentally scans the attic for children's toys. This bowl washer's mind is everywhere but in the kitchen sink—not a traditional case of mindfulness. Yet, this mind is open to a wide range of the most important elements in a busy environment. It is a full mind situated well for making good choices of lasting value.
The choices that please us months later are the ones that match our highest values. Very often those include compassion and intimacy with other living beings. Life is not a stack of clean breakfast bowls. But it’s not a sink of dirty dishes, either. Having access to a good set of written values is critical. Good ones endure beyond this month, this year, this house, this job. Pulling these values off the page and putting them to work in the service of life takes mindfulness.
The word enlightenment may be more tightly associated with meditation than any other. The term refers to an advanced condition of consciousness and implies an enduring happiness born of profound, in-the-bones knowledge of life’s essence and freedom from psychological weakness. While this condition arrives as a gift, or endowment in geniuses and saints, enlightenment also holds a unique developmental promise for the rest of us. Because it stands as the culmination of meditative maturation, enlightenment speaks to us in uniquely bold terms about our innate potential. It invites us to become geniuses and saints and not to remain merely admirers. Of course, it requires a long journey of self-discovery, self-development, and dedication to ethical living, wisdom, and truth. While enlightenment may be thought of as a culmination of the meditative journey, you will find traditions and teachers that dislike phrasings that make it sound like a goal. A goal-minded approach to meditation, as we have seen, is counter-productive. In a society fascinated with winners and world-class achievement, enlightenment can too easily appear as a gold medal or black belt. And when it does, the goal gets in the way of the goal.
Enlightenment’s elusive nature makes it a plump target for skeptics. Even believers in enlightenment often consider it a far-off matter having only marginal impact on their daily lives. It is, by all accounts, a rare condition. There are no commonly accepted external demonstrations of being enlightened. So, no one really knows who is enlightened, how long it takes on average, what percent of any population enjoys this condition, and exactly what leads to it. In some traditions, enlightenment is said to come suddenly and in others, it is expected to arrive gradually. In neither case is it expected to come quickly or without diligence. Traditions of reincarnation consider it to take lifetimes, perhaps millions of lifetimes. It took the world’s most famous meditation teacher, the Buddha, several intense and creative years.
On the other hand, some traditions teach that enlightenment already exists within all; that it is not at a great distance, but right under our noses; that the process of becoming enlightened is one of recognizing a given, present reality. This view helps balance the picture quite a bit. It brightens our prospects, and that pumps up our interest. If something profoundly helpful—not to mention wonderful—is really all around us, even though we might not be likely to grasp it fully by the end of our lives, then it is worth checking out.
Daniel Goleman offers the following overview from his classic review of the world’s meditative traditions,
The goal of all meditation paths, whatever their ideology, source, or methods, is to transform the meditator’s consciousness. In the process, the meditator dies to his past self and is reborn to a new level of experience…The ultimate transformation for the meditator is …the awakened state, which mixes with and re-creates his normal consciousness...Each path labels this end state differently. But no matter how diverse the names, these paths all propose the same basic formula in an alchemy of the self: the diffusion of the effects of meditation into the meditator’s waking, dreaming, and sleep states. At the outset, this diffusion requires the meditator’s effort. As he progresses, it becomes easier for him to maintain prolonged meditative awareness in the midst of his other activities. As the states produced by his meditation meld with his waking activity, the awakened state ripens. When it reaches full maturity, it lastingly changes his consciousness, transforming his experience of himself and of his universe. [The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience, Putnam, 1988, p112]
If, as you learn more about this fascinating subject, you find it elusive or self-contradicting, remember that enlightenment, by definition, transcends ordinary experience. This means that it will have to be difficult to talk about and to understand from the outside. Therefore, we need to be patient with it and accept that theoretical statements will not be as precise as some would like. Since most definitions of enlightenment place it outside of the scope of the intellect, a lifetime of scholarly study will not scratch the surface of its reality. However, as soon as you begin a program of meditation, reading and hearing about enlightenment can help you understand your own experiences of meditative growth. Long before these experiences become deep or enduring, they carry some of the distinct aromas of enlightenment. This is what Goleman means by “the diffusion of the effects of meditation into the meditator’s waking, dreaming, and sleep states.” The role that meditation plays in the growth of enlightenment can be seen as in the following simplified model.
Phase One: Sittings of meditation bring temporary, diffuse, or mildly experienced elements of enlightened vision, including: : happiness (called “bliss” in many meditation traditions), understanding of oneself and surroundings (called “insight”, “wisdom”, “knowledge”) and openhearted, non-competing relationship with all things (“compassion”, “unity”). During this phase, these experiences grows deeper and they begin irrigating and ventilating moments of outside of meditation. This phase can last decades.
Phase Two: Meditative consciousness fully graces all moments of the day and night, even sleeping and dreaming. It is a broadening and deepening of consciousness that enables one to be both inwardly stable, as if in meditation, while also being outwardly active. Activities mix freely with bliss, wisdom, knowledge, deep-rooted self-understanding, compassion, and unity with all things. This state is one level of enlightenment.
Recall how a sitting of meditation takes us to a destination downstream, to a place where the mind runs straighter, stronger, deeper, and quieter. After meditation, we return to the place we put in, the place where we live. But here’s the secret: we don’t come all the way back. We inch our way downstream. While each ride on the river is pleasant and well worth doing for its own sake, without our even wanting it, the process gradually changes us. It changes our home. Look again at the figure and let your mind melt into that infinite horizon. That “place” is reachable within minutes during a sitting of meditation. It just needs to be what nature has prepared for you on a given day. Nature also seems to have prepared the way for us to move our permanent dwelling ever so gradually and gracefully toward that horizon.
This model of enlightenment can help us appreciate the significance of subtle changes in meditation and in outer activity that may be showing up even during the first week of meditation. What are the small seedlings that will grow into the bliss, insightfulness, and compassion of enlightenment? Look for them. Did you let something go by that ordinarily you would criticize? Did you criticize but with harmony? Those are droplets of compassion and unity. Did you have a slightly easier time when someone criticized you? Even one experience of being insulted and having that arrow fly right through without doing damage is a blessing. It is a droplet of pure consciousness. Did you have a new idea that surprised even you? That’s a droplet of insight. Did you find yourself content for no reason when driving to work—even on a Monday? That’s a droplet of bliss. It is worth taking note of these as progress in meditative maturation. As walkers of the meditative pathway, we can recognize experiences like these as coming from the inner spaciousness of meditative awareness and can daydream from time to time about what it will be like to be that way all of the time.
Thirty-five years ago, when Zen was making its first permanent home in America, Philip Kapleau published The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching Practice Enlightenment. In this book Kapleau, himself a distinguished teacher of Zen in the Japanese lineage, printed an extraordinary set of journals on enlightenment experiences by eight contemporary students: three Americans—one probably Kapleau himself—one Canadian, and five Japanese. These personal, raw, penetrating accounts say more than their words. Against a jungle backdrop with millions of pages of personal stuff published on every other feature of life, from sex to death, these 64 pages stand nearly alone, flashlights in the woods, illuminating an intimate and rare part of human experience. It’s worth a trip to the library or bookstore. Here’s a taste from “Mr. P. K. An American Ex-Businessman, Age 46”:
August 5, 1958...Hawklike, the roshi [master teacher, Yasutani, in his temple in Japan] scrutinized me as I entered his room, walked toward him, prostrated myself, and sat before him with my mind alert and exhilarated. “The universe is One,” he began, each word tearing into my mind like a bullet. “The moon of Truth—” All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a dazzling stream of illumination and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight. For a fleeting eternity I was alone—I alone was. Then the roshi swam into view. Our eyes met and flowed into each other, and we burst out laughing. “I have it! I know! There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything and everything is nothing!” I exclaimed more to myself that to the roshi, and got up and walked out.” [The Three Pillars of Zen, Beacon, 1967, p. 228]
Spirituality is not something remote and pure, belonging to a special few. Like sexuality, it comes with the human package. Therefore, it pervades all aspects of life. Psychologist Thomas Moore describes the role of spirituality in his book Care of the Soul, distinguishing it from soulfulness.
In our spirituality, we reach for consciousness, awareness, and the highest values; in our soulfulness, we endure the most pleasurable and the most exhausting of human experiences and emotions. These two directions make up the fundamental pulse of human life, and to an extent, they have an attraction to each other…[The] spiritual point of view is necessary for the soul, providing the breadth of vision, the inspiration, and the sense of meaning it needs… In the broadest sense, spirituality is an aspect of any attempt to approach or attend to the invisible factors in life and to transcend the personal, concrete, finite particulars of this world. [Care of the Soul, Harper Collins, 1992, pp.231,232]
Moore says that all humans need to care for the soul by touching upon the spiritual. Meditation can be seen as a direct touch of these "invisible factors in life." Even without ritual or consciously spiritual attitude, the simple act of Natural Meditation brings one to a place that is well recognized worldwide as a spiritually enriching environment. The spring water of meditative awareness is seen as a fruit of the spirit or even as the spirit itself. The meditative practice of stepping outside of activity can be seen as critical to the formation of an openhearted spirituality. Ignoring the ego for a few minutes every day helps keep the spiritual windows open. The intentional neglect or denial of the ego is an essential spiritual act in many traditions. Father Thomas Keating, co-designer of the Centering Prayer method, a Christian form similar to Transcendental Meditation, Relaxation Response, and Natural Meditation, finds the dynamics of this denial of ego to be central to spiritual formation. In Intimacy with God he writes,[note: "sacred word" is functionally equivalent to the mantra in Natural Meditation]
By returning to the sacred word again and again, we gradually are wearing away the layers of false self until they are emptied out. Then our intention is not challenged anymore. It is always just "Yes." Our behavior becomes more and more motivated by divine love, which is totally self-giving, rather than by the self-centered universe or homemade self that we created in childhood in order to survive. [Intimacy with God, p.99, Crossroad, 1994]
You will find almost countless cross-connections of ideas regarding meditative growth and spiritual formation. Then again, the cross-connections exist with art, science, personal development, and on and on. Meditation’s purpose is often seen as the furthering of a particular culture’s spiritual goals. Meditative traditions that develop in theistic (God-oriented) cultures view the essence of meditative maturity as the blossoming of a relationship with God. Meditation is seen as opening the heart and mind to God. The significance of enlightenment lies in the profound embracing of God and God’s creation. In non-theistic meditative cultures, meditation may also be seen as spiritual. The major example of this, Buddhism, sees spiritual growth as opening the heart to the living unity with all created things, especially the “sentient beings.” There, the far end of spiritual growth, which is enlightenment, dissolves the ignorance that creates the belief in a separate self. Father Keating, a Christian sees Centering Prayer as a “wearing away the layers of false self until they are emptied out.” Yet, how close this comes to the Buddhist realization recorded in Kapleau’s account, “I have it! I know! There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything and everything is nothing!”
Mindfulness…enlightenment…wisdom…spirituality…these concepts are abstract in the extreme. Amazingly, they also all contain a down-to-earth pragmatism that centers on effectiveness in daily life. This pragmatism often gets enshrined in the phrase “right action”, which sounds a bit old-fashioned in today’s environment. Enlightenment is as a state of continuous, spontaneous right action. Westerners have grown suspicious of formulas that rank actions as right or wrong, and while meditative traditions have their own rules of conduct, meditative growth provides something rules always lack. Rules always have holes. Or loopholes. Meditative growth fills in behind the rules. This is especially useful when the rules have holes or two rules conflict.
This idea exists in many non-meditative spiritual traditions, too. Jesus’ reformation philosophy is grounded in the idea that dynamic contact with the fundamental principle of love of God and neighbor, enables one to act correctly in the face of sudden, peculiar, stressful circumstances—when rules fall short. This does not imply that we must become reckless concerning the rules, but it definitely does imply that we will find times when acting correctly means breaking the rules. Jesus had to break some of his religion’s rules of conduct in order to remain true to principles of compassion, service, and love.
The meditative and spiritual traditions differ on so many details, but on this principle of right action they tend to agree: action is judged to be correct if it is effective when viewed from the longest perspective. Actions occur "on the ground" and "in the heat of the moment", but they are judged to be effective only if they contribute to good results when viewed from afar, high above the moment. The purpose of rules is to help us make effective choices, but rules are not sufficient. If we want to make choices that carry our life well, viewed over the long haul, we need a grounding in durable principles that are available at every moment. Mindful awareness is also helpful—and even critical—but it too is not enough. We can spend years mindfully watching ourselves make mistakes. When the moment of choice comes, the heart and mind must act—Your child appears at your side as you write a complex essay. "Do you want to play outside with me?" What do you do? Either you play or you don’t. The moment comes and it goes in a twinkling. You act from what you are.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous and earliest writings from the Indian meditative tradition, right action requires a grounding that transcends the earthly elements. This grounding would be hopelessly vague and abstract if it were not for effective spiritual practices, including prayer and meditation. Meditative growth deepens the personal taproot into a source of clear, clean thought and intuition. In theistic terms, it opens the channel between oneself and God, allowing God’s will to be expressed more clearly in our actions. In non-theistic terms, it removes the darkness of ignorance, the illusions of separateness.
You will not go far into Eastern meditation theory before running across the Sanskrit (Indian) term karma. It really just means action, but it is usually brought into discussion to refer to the effects of action, often the effects of one lifetime upon the next. Cause and effect descend into every act and every moment. Not playing ball in the yard when your girl asks you to has an immediate effect—on her, on you, on the yard. We cannot count the effects and cannot hope to calculate a correct trajectory. So, the meditation message regarding karma is this: you cannot change your behavior with a snap of the fingers. You need first to be capable of producing clean action and that requires access to clean thought and feeling. That access cannot be willed into place overnight.
It takes time to walk the fractal line of meditative maturation.
It is never too soon to start the walk.
And never too late.
As evening falls within his temple walls, a monk sings into the dampening air:
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time passes quickly by
And opportunity is lost
Each one of us
Should strive to awaken
Do not squander your life
Previous Idea — Appendix