‘Not much to offer you –
just a lotus flower floating
In a small jar of water.’
– Ryokan, from One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens
The paradox of letting go of ‘recipes’
Poetry comes closest to communicate what happens in meditation. The events and landscapes of the soul are as vast and limitless as the galaxies out there. ‘As above so below.’π At moments, perhaps, meditation brings us to truly ‘see’ Ryokan's lotus flower in the small jar of water. And ‘something happens’. It is as if a vortex opens up and we feel the most incredible experiences possible. As if we're touching into the ultimate, deepest meanings of existence. Moments like these are very beautiful. But they are gifts. To hold such experiences as the goal of meditation is to lose our way. Mostly, meditation is the work of ‘pitching up’. Yet, ‘work’ really does not capture the surrender that is its essence. And unbridled surrender neglects the firmness required.
The realm of meditation is full of paradox. For example, striving towards ‘getting it right’ prevents us from getting it right. As it does when we become fixated on our method of meditation, when we clutch so mechanically to our ‘recipe’ of how to meditate. Doing that imposes too tight a direction on things. Which means we do not open to experience or work with what is actually already happening inside us. Before anything else, we have to receive what is. To experience it. Which is the same as ‘being present,’ or completely being here, now.
So basically, meditation is where we practice to open, to let go. But even this can be twisted by our ego-minds into something formulaic, where we harden into our ‘recipe for success’.π Which always, naturally prevents us from opening. It is as if the opposite forces inside the many paradoxes push back at us. So that we may learn to feel them more deeply. And so come deeper into ‘what is’.
The only ‘sin’ is literalising
Many people practice meditation in the literal-minded manner of forcing themselves into the mold of their recipes. Some do this for many years. But, as Chogyam Trungpa points out, this is not meditation. Yet, at the same time, another great pitfall in meditation is our ingrained habits. Which means simply ‘being true to who you are’ or ‘going with the flow’ are not meditation either.
So we do need a method when we meditate. We need it to loosen that constrictive death-grip our habitual ways have on us. In other words, our method must facilitate our letting go. So, that we may open, firstly to feel ourselves more properly. Which becomes the foundation for ultimately letting go beyond ourselves. And as our traveling deepens, we discover that truly opening eventually necessitates letting go of our method.
Living and meditating by recipe, touch on the warp and weft by which the tapestry of western culture has been woven. Our religions have been rooted in ‘commandments’; that is, rules as defined by ‘the Word’. One tragedy of our time is that we've lost connection to the spirit of these religions. While we've become deeply captive to their cultures of literal-mindedness.
For, as James Hillman points out, the only ‘sin’ is literalising.π In fact, the biblical images of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘idolatry’ touch onto the same truth. That ‘blasphemy is the only unforgivable sin,’ simply means that as long as we remain stuck in literal-mindedness, we cannot experience God. And, despite the fact that our popular culture has largely disowned our root religions, at no time before in our history have so many human beings been so ensnared by literal-mindedness. Which is no less a religion in itself. Ego's religion is that of ‘recipes for success’. Which are essentially, literalising.
Entering the turbulence
We are the first civilization in history to have lost connection to the sacred. And ‘sacred’ here is not some empty word, concept or thought of ‘how to be.’ But a live experience that is carried in the heart and felt in the body. Which is exactly what religion-that-literalises cannot evoke in their devotees.
In meditation we drop into the depths of experiencing ‘the rawness’ of what is, now. And when we do this, we come into a deeply embodied conflict with our literal-minded culture. For this culture is rooted in the very cells of each of our bodies. This last statement is not ‘merely a metaphor.’ No matter how liberal-minded, philosophically enlightened or irreligious we are, each and every one of us is steeped in our cultural heritage. Including the religions at the roots of our cultures.
So in meditation, when we drop down to that place, this conflict takes us into immense ‘turbulence.’ Sometimes the body begins to shake uncontrollably. Sometimes we are afflicted with immensely violent and frightening images. At other times, we are seized by panicky or feverish thoughts, by what has been called ‘monkey-mind.’ And, sometimes we become afflicted with dreadful emotions.
We tend to respond at these junctures by ‘jumping out’ of our experience. In particular, we do this by feeding our thoughts or emotions. For this gives us a sense of ‘solid ground,’ something we can hold onto. A catch-22 we face here is that trying to understand logically or philosophically what is happening, is another decoy from what is. So, here we learn what the Jungians mean when they say, ‘the first work in psychology is to strengthen our psychic container.’ Our job here is to remain present with what is happening, ‘to simply contain our experience of it.’π
Meditation as initiation
This turbulence can be hectic. Here we may begin to understand the meaning of ‘true psychological change is always embodied.’ It is in our bodies that we feel the turbulence. It is in our bodies that we ‘do the containing.’ Soul is intimately connected with the body. Once we've experienced this, we are struck by the absurdity of seeing Psychology as something deriving from or residing ‘in the mind.’
During this phase of encountering turbulence, our work is ‘to build our psychic muscle.’ In other words, no matter how intellectually flexible or clever we are, nor how capable we are of penetrating and ‘channeling’ psychic realities, when we come face to face with what is, the strength or weakness of our ‘psychological muscle’, determines the limit of our capacity to remain present, and experience the depths, of what is. Meditation is an essential part of how we build this muscle, gradually, over a long period of time.
Trungpa says that meditation brings our neuroses to the surface. The above account of the kind of conflict we face in meditation is simply one example of such conflicts. No matter what the inherent story of the particular neurosis we are coming to face, the experience always has similarities. Surrendering into the physical turbulence that arises, is surrendering into the dismemberment at the heart of initiation. Here we touch onto a core meaning of initiation: it is an ordeal that reshapes and restructures the way in which the ‘cells’ of our being ‘fit together.’ Which is another way of saying, our experience of the ordeal itself transforms ‘the place’ where we are psychologically embodied. There is no psychological change without initiation.
Operation without anaesthetic
Now we begin to glimpse what Trungpa meant when he said that meditation is like operating on ourselves without anaesthetic. Carl Jung said that neurosis is what happens when we try to avoid our legitimate portion of suffering. This means that heightened neurosis is not an illness. But a sign of our ripeness to surrender into initiation.
It is important to understand that these ideas are radical for the society in which we live. Important, because it helps us to see that our immense resistance against surrendering into these ordeals is to a large extent ‘inherited’ from our society. And not true to our nature. The turbulence is this resistance. It is the pain that comes from opening to the operation that heals us. This idea is related to the natural law underlying the fact that a snake's poison is the essence of its antidote.
Paradoxically, by entering these ordeals we learn that the word ‘pain’ falsifies and obscures the richness and vitality of the actual experience. It is enlightening to see how we obstruct ourselves from opening to our actual experience as long as we label it ‘pain’. Or ‘unbearable’. Or whatever judgement we use to label the experience. Nothing teaches us to become gentle with ourselves like ‘pain’. Which gentleness, is essential to love.
But the healing here does not change the fact that the soul remains infinitely neurotic. For the energy of neurosis is not an illness, but simply ‘the angel’ who comes to visit us from time to time. Whenever our destiny involves the necessity for us to undergo initiation. It is up to us whether we channel that energy, that ‘poison,’ to heal the affliction from which the soul is suffering. Or to block it, so that it increasingly metastasise into dis-ease.
The sacred and the profane
Societies that still understood how necessary initiation is for the soul, were societies still rooted in knowledge of the sacred. They knew that initiation could only occur ritually, in sacred space. Similarly to how a laboratory experiment needs to be ‘hermetically sealed’. A concept inherited from the hermetic tradition of Alchemy.
A core meaning of the word sacred is ‘to separate out’. In other words, our everyday surface-world will not by itself facilitate the initiations so essential to the soul. No matter how deeply or truthfully we are experiencing and involved with that surface-world. Unless we periodically separate out into sacred space and engage the energies of our deepest beings, we are bound like Sisyphus to keep pushing our burdens, meaninglessly, up the hill. This way of life can never bring soulful depth and meaning to our lives, no matter how sincere, good, or honest we are in our everyday interactions.
It is no wonder our society has so many people plagued and entrapped by their neuroses. Because our society no longer provides us with sacred space. Which is where we really need to take our neuroses, to be worked on, to be ‘operated on’. This point touches on why much of psychotherapy in our society does not serve soul. Because the cultures underlying the therapies and therapists themselves, are simply extensions of Sisyphus’s remaining stuck in superficiality.
In other words, for therapy to work, it has to be done in the context of a culture that knows how to connect into sacred space. And, the therapy itself has to cultivate and facilitate initiation. Otherwise no true change will occur, and years of talking will simply be wasted in service of the ego's self-important delusion that ‘it is all about managing our world more skilfully.’
In this context we see what it means ‘to follow a spiritual path.’ It simply means journeying in the true sense of the word. As has been pointed out elsewhere,π not all journeys are truly journeys. It means we use our existence on this planet as a container for the unfolding of the soul's journey. Rather than only prioritising our ego ambitions.
To be on this journey, ultimately, all the details of our way of life has to support the underlying presence of the sacred beneath our everyday surface-world. ‘Sacred space’ eventually becomes the underlying culture of our entire existence. Like invisible ground water that flows deep below the surface and keeps the soul moist. This involves a very different life from the one where we are flowing only and always in terms of our surface reality and its demands.
In fact, living like this opens the true potential of being human on Earth. The lack of a sense of the sacred is why many people, even materialistically very successful people, are often deeply haunted by a sense of not fulfilling the purpose of their lives. So, there are those who have meditated for years, and have yet to experience ‘being dismembered’ during meditation, as described above. In other words, they have not yet experienced fully opening to and encountering their neuroses rising to the surface. One reason for this is that they do not separate out from their everyday lives when they meditate. They continue to ‘drift on the surface’ and resist dropping into the depths of being. Of course, the other side of this paradox also needs to be honoured: we do what we can. And we let go in little steps, gently easing ourselves deeper down.
The opposite of the sacred is not evil, for we encounter both good and evil in sacred space and both are necessary for the soul. The opposite of the sacred is the superficial.π And yet, soul even requires a good portion of superficiality! But, ‘cruising on the surface’ is not meditation. And those who habitually do this, and often do so for years, are simply assimilating their meditation practice as another prop for their materialistic existence.
To enter into the sacred, we have to let go of even those smallest habits that reinforce our only flowing on the surface. This is ‘to pitch up.’ When we really do this, we experience ‘feeling unsafe.’ For the illusion of solidity in flowing on the surface is a comforting anaesthetic. Hence, entering the sacred demands sacrificing our sense of ‘solid ground’. Which we tend to do only once the panic and claustrophobia hits, that the price of that comfort is to live a life lacking in meaning. And that the comfort itself is empty and flimsy. Paradoxically, once we've made the sacrifice we discover not only that we are able to cope. But also that this journey beyond solid ground is the very nourishment our soul has longed for. For all eternity. Now we start to glimpse why the true meaning of sacrifice is ‘to make sacred’.π
Letting go into the depths of ‘now’
When we truly come into the present, we drop down into the depths of experiencing what is in this moment. The experience of the ever-flowing moment is infinitely deep. And fundamentally volatile, because of its diversity and constant fluidity. Not only fluidity in the sense of ‘flowing from one moment to the next.’ But also in the sense of ‘changeability beyond our control’. The constant changes in powerful experiences flowing through the soul. And so, we can get lost here. Which is why it helps ‘to find guidance from a forester when trying to make our way through the dense forest.’π
By ‘coming back to the breath,’ we let go of continuing to drift only on the surface. We let go of thinking, dreaming and drifting in the problems, prospects or projects of our everyday world. We let it go. Even if only during these moments, inside sacred space, while we ‘practice meditation.’ At the same time, we engage and fully experience the energies underlying these ‘problems’ and preoccupations. In other words, we let go of the story-lines, and stay with the energy. We let go of what we hold onto, cling to, in order to feel safe. We let go of anything that prevents us from coming deeper into the experience of this moment. This is what it means ‘to open’. We do this in little steps, but keep bringing ourselves back. To let go, to surrender our resistances against opening completely. Into being here. Now.