Spiritual practice

Alchemical meditation

Alchemical meditation

‘Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. We provide space through the simple discipline of doing nothing.’

– Chogyam Trungpa, from The Myth of Freedom

Meditation is something we do

To change our lives we have to change what we do and how we live. We soon become saturated by the cultures into which we were born. This is true whether we blindly flow along or actively rebel against these cultures. Just as in any one-on-one relationships, both ‘co-dependence’ and ‘anti-dependence’ are signs of being unconsciously saturated by cultures that possess us. The cultures of our world today are no longer nourishing soil for living authentically and deeply connected to our experience of existing. They don't cultivate lives full of soul and meaning. So, the first phase of any work on ourselves to truly cultivate change is always, inevitably, the work of undoing. And no matter how much work we have done on ourselves, we keep revisiting this need to undo, from time to time.

Whether we do the work of undoing or building soul-structures for deeper living, action is required. We cannot continue living as we always have and expect changes to happen! No matter how many profound intellectual insights we've had. To truly change our lives, our ‘smallest,’ most deeply ingrained habits have to be affected. So, ‘spiritual practices’ are simply things we do in order to cultivate deep change.

There comes a point when the urgency in us to change push us into action. Meditation is a good place to start. So, finally we put aside all our books, podcasts, videos and ideas. And we meditate. We sit down and practice to simply be here. With whatever is, now. Meditation starts with feeling ourselves more properly. Which means, we feel more deeply into what is here, rather than trying to transcend ourselves or try achieve some special or altered state of consciousness. This is the basic meaning of meditation – it really is quite simple.

Alchemical meditation

‘Find somewhere private, where you're likely not to be disturbed. “Creating the space” firstly means providing ourselves with the space where we can relax into dropping deeply into ourselves.’

Creating the space

Find somewhere private, where you're likely not to be disturbed. Set an alarm-clock for the required time. This way, the mind does not obsess about when to end the session. ‘Creating the space’ firstly means providing ourselves with the space in which we can relax into dropping deeply into ourselves. But, even this simple task brings many in conflict with the culture in which they are saturated. For example, they believe (and ardently rationalise!) that they should remain available to others or in control of something in their world. And so, we come up against our edges in meditation. And our work here is similar to that in Yoga when we come up against our physical rigidities. We first learn ‘to hold the tension of the discomfort’. Then we learn ‘to relax into the stretch’.

An essential part of providing ourselves with space to drop deeply into ourselves, is cultivating good posture in meditation. In fact, we are likely to spend many meditation sessions learning to relax into the correct posture. This can be especially difficult when we begin to meditate. Because physical pain is then not necessarily a sign of bad posture. But can also be the necessary tension as part of the process to cultivate the muscle needed for good posture. And so again we need to work our edges. Whereas later, physical pain more often than not tends to be a sign of bad posture.

Cultivating good posture

Best is to sit cross-legged, or if possible, in half-lotus or full lotus position, on a meditation cushion. If this is not possible, we may also sit in a firm, upright chair. The meditation cushion should be firm enough to support the spine. Place your hands on your thighs, palms facing either up or down. If preferred, the fingers may be held in traditional mudra postures. Let the tongue rest, calm like a lake, behind the bottom teeth. Breathe naturally, preferably through the nose. The eyes may be open or closed. If open, let them rest on the floor about six feet ahead. It is important that our posture eventually becomes a firm container. Which provides us with the space to relax into becoming as receptive as possible.

The simple key to good posture is that the spine must be held straight at all times. While the front part of the body, notably the area around the heart, remains open and ‘spacious’. So we can fully relax into deeply feeling the sensations and emotions in the breath.

Notice the two bones at the base of the spine on either side in the buttocks. Imagine an invisible and strong thread attached to the top of the head, gently yet firmly pulling us straight upwards. While suspending the body, hanging relaxed and free from strain, from the shoulders down. Imagine finding that optimal position where the body is balanced on the two bones, the spine extending straight up and firmly supported. Finding that point of balance where the least amount of muscle effort is required to keep the spine straight. We are firmly rooted on the earth while being suspended from the heavens. After some practice, we come to realise that this is a most natural position for the body.

The firm and the gentle

Good posture, like much else in meditation arises from a deep dialogue between firmness and gentleness. Once we've established a foundation of good posture, physical pain tends to warn us when we're holding too tight or collapsing. This could be in our bodies, our emotions, or mentally. It tells us when some unconscious process needs our loving attention.

It may take months, even years, of working through many physical and emotional edges, before we start to settle into trusting our body's ability to provide us with the space to drop deeply into ourselves. This experience of deeply trusting our body, potentially opens mystical ‘channels’ in our beings. Channels that paradoxically, even allow our minds to open beyond restricting beliefs and perspectives. We start to open into perceiving what some mystical traditions have called ‘the subtle body’. Where the lines between body, mind and soul become fluid, and we begin to perceive energies more than things. Where we start to ‘see’ dimensions of our world we previously did not perceive. When we open to what is generally regarded by our culture as irrational.

This trust is an essential component of ‘constellating our psychic vessel of containment’. In the tradition of Hermetic Alchemy, this moment is regarded as the starting point of all true work on ourselves! In other words, without the vessel we have not yet set off on the journey. What we may have regarded as ‘our journey’ was simply being swamped by the oceans of the soul. Coursing through this world ‘with an endlessly leaky vessel’. Where we were ‘spilling out all over the place’. Without a rudder and sails, constantly swirling in whichever stream of emotions, thoughts or events currently possessing us. Here is no space for the experience of depth. No space for soul to constellate.

Mindfulness of breathing

And so we start to meditate. The first thing that happens is we discover just how utterly unable we are to stay present with ourselves. So, we need a method to help free us from the tyranny of our ingrained habits. The basic method of meditation involves simply staying present with our breathing. It is called mindfulness of breathing meditation.

But before ten seconds elapses, we find ourselves everywhere except with our breathing. We're forever ‘jumping out’ into our minds, entertaining ourselves, thinking about so much that is in fact not here, now. Our minds are one place, our bodies somewhere else. We become fragmented. Usually, we are ‘in our heads’ and utterly unaware of our bodies. But, our bodies are where we experience. So, splitting off our bodies ‘into the unconscious’, we lose touch with our actual experience. We are no longer present.

So, our first guideline is that when we catch ourselves thinking, we label it ‘thinking’, let it go, and come back to our breathing. ‘Thinking’ here is usually in words. But it can also be a flowing in emotional story-lines. Or flowing in images that feed story-lines about our surface world.

On more subtle levels, ‘thinking’ includes two forms of ‘impaired wakefulness’ that are best described as ‘drifting’ and ‘sinking’. Both are  similar sensations to our moving into night-time dreams. Sinking resembles succumbing to lethargic, warm, comforting laziness. A heaviness drawing us downwards. Drifting can be restless flitting here and there, or a more dreamy floating sensation. Both drain our energy and mean we are no longer present.

Usually, we have to ‘catch ourselves’ thinking. Because we are mostly not aware that we're doing it. And, then we ‘touch into it,’ label it ‘thinking’ and gently bring our attention back to our breathing.

Alchemical meditation

‘We open fully into our natural breathing. And when we really do this, we inevitably come to that place where we have to plunge into "the great abyss" itself. Like the Fool. Where we are struck by the reality that truly letting go means dying.’

Opening into natural breathing

Coming back to our breath we learn to follow our natural breathing. ‘Following,’ here means it happens to us. It is beyond our control. Mindfulness of breathing is really the discipline and art of completely opening into unencumbered natural breathing. Into the deep and subtle experience of sensations and feelings there. When this truly happens we are struck by immense awe, at the possibility of opening into such vastness and beauty. Available to us, so close-by, right here inside our own breathing. Who could have imagined? It sometimes seems like a cruel joke!

When we try to open into the unencumbered naturalness of our breathing, we notice just how forced and stunted our breathing actually is most of the time. So we begin to relax into stretching our rigidities, little by little. We ‘work on our posture’ by gradually stretching our breathing. Down to the depths of our lungs so that our bellies begin to rise and fall. The line between forced or stunted breathing, and simple natural breathing, is very fine. Any emotional, intellectual or physical hardness we carry can be felt inside our breathing. Here too we encounter the mystery of meditation: if we become attached to ‘following our natural breathing,’ it becomes itself a hardness that obstructs us from doing so.

Mindfulness of breathing meditation really consists of letting go of any such hardnesses. We do this in our bodies. Not through thinking about it. We have to let go of our emotional, physical and intellectual clenching and grasping, to fully open into our natural breathing. In fact, if we really do this, we inevitably come to that place where we have to plunge into ‘the great abyss’ itself. Like the Fool. Where we are struck by the reality that truly letting go means dying.

Dissolving ourselves

Where we are psychologically embodied, usually includes a lot of ‘gunk’ that has hardened in our beings. Like layers of sediment accumulated over thousands of years. Which longs to be broken down or dissolved. Significantly, letting go of the hardnesses in our bodies, beings and breathing, opens us into encountering the underlying discomfort those hardnesses defend against.

Hardnesses and rigidities are signs that we are at an edge. When we let the hardnesses go, first we learn to be with deep discomfort. Then we learn to relax into the vast, open quality of the discomfort. We meet the hardness. And feel into it opening up. Which means not yielding to the sometimes very intense compulsion to ‘jump out’ of our discomfort. And so we activate ‘the chemical reactions’ that dissolve the gunk in our beings. This is ‘physical work, in the body.’ And it takes time.

To facilitate this dissolution, the second guideline of our method is to ‘dissolve ourselves on the out-breath.’ Notice how the out-breath dissolves naturally. As we breathe out, our lungs empty out. There is perhaps a hint of discomfort as we approach the end of the cycle: those moments when all air has been expelled. This discomfort too, is natural. We don't need to harden against it.

On the out-breath, fullness dissolves into emptiness. The in-breath does not dissolve in the same manner. Every cycle of breath imitates life and death. The in-breath occurs naturally, we become full. At its height, there too is a natural discomfort. Then it turns into the out-breath. And we dissolve. So our guideline says: on the out-breath, we allow our hardnesses to be dissolved by the naturally dissolving energy. On the in-breath, we simply provide space for whatever is there, to be: we ‘pause’. On the out-breath, we dissolve.

Keeping it real

Real psychological change requires initiation. Which always is a a real experience of death. The shifts in consciousness that follow such experiences change who we are. On a deep, embodied level. Everything else flows from that. Our relationships. Our world of work and money. A sense of self-fulfillment. Of ‘happiness,’ even. Now we begin to glimpse why modern behavioural therapies only address the surface of who we are. Why they are properly called ‘ego-therapy’. As opposed to soul-based therapy. ‘Where we are psychologically embodied,’ is bound to continue being our deeply troublesome guest. No matter how much ego-will we employ to control our behaviours or thought-patterns. Of course, behavioural work is both useful and necessary. But it has to occur inside a culture that prioritises soul. Which means it affects us, works on us at the deepest layers of our beings. Such cultures are multi-faceted and involve all the dimensions of our lives.

Similarly, any spiritual discipline that does not accept and remain deeply and closely in touch with ‘where we are embodied at,’ is simply a hidden form of materialism. Especially the darker elements of who we are; those parts of us that we, ourselves, really don't like. Such spirituality covers over, ‘breathes through’ and is in denial of the darkness at the heart of authentic nature. Which is where a good portion of our natural vitality, potency and energy resides. Conversely, any spirituality or therapeutic culture that ‘embrace darkness’ to appear deep, soulful, or authentic, have lost their way. It has become a matter of appearances, of rote, of mimicking the real thing; simply another form of materialism. These tend to become so one-sided that they are in denial of the fundamental goodness of existence. Such cultures, traditions and spirituality, then, are not the real thing.

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