The Stages of the Meditation Journey
Meditation is a way of breaking through from a world of illusion into the pure light of realityJohn Main
The world of illusion that John Main refers to in this statement is the world we build up out of our thoughts. Many of us equate who we are with what we think. Who do you think you are? The image we have of ourselves, the image we have of others, and the world we live in is made up out of thoughts: our own thoughts and, often, the thoughts of others we have unthinkingly made our own.
From the moment we are born we accept the views of those who are significant in our life without question: our parents, our siblings, our wider family, our community, our peer group, the society we live in, and the religion and culture we are brought up in. We shape our view of reality based on the accepted views of others in an attempt to fit in, to be accepted, to be loved and respected. In other words driven by our need to survive, we adopt the opinions of others and adopt expected roles and attitudes. Often in doing so, we forget who we really are and become imprisoned by all this conditioning.
As we grow up, some of us have the selfconfidence to challenge and examine these thoughts and views. We feel the urge to find out who we really are under all the conditioning, masks, roles, and functions. But ‘breaking through’ in the words of John Main, is not easy. The fact that we are dominated by thoughts can be discovered the moment we start to meditate. We become aware of what John Main referred to as ‘the chaotic din of a mind ravaged by so much exposure to trivia and distraction’, whilst Laurence Freeman refers to ‘the monkey mind level of distraction’.
Yet, we find it difficult letting go of our thoughts, since we have been brought up to believe that thought is the highest activity we can engage in. Descartes in the 17th Century said, ‘I think, therefore I am’, and in doing so linked existence with thought. T.S Eliot illustrates this in his Four Quartets, in which people sitting in an underground train, stuck in a tunnel, feel they are faced with ‘the growing terror of nothing to think about’. Not thinking feels like a threat to our survival. No wonder people are fearful when faced with a discipline like meditation that encourages letting go off thought. The stages on the journey of meditation, our ‘breaking through’, are therefore our changing relationship with our thoughts.
‘Breaking through’ requires courage and perseverance in meditation, but will lead us to the ‘pure light of reality’, where we remember and experience that we are ‘children of God’, ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’, and that ‘the consciousness that was in Christ is also in us’. As we have seen meditation leads us to a greater awareness of our conditioning and hence to selfknowledge and ultimately to freedom.
One helpful way of entering the silence is to remember that all our thoughts are thoughts about the past or the future. We need to let go of thoughts and stay in the present moment, but as we all know from experience, that is easier said than done. In Christian Meditation, the mantra is our way of staying in the present moment, fully focussed and aware.
I remember years ago there was an advert for meditation. On a poster there stood an Indian Guru, in typical attire and appearance, on his surfboard, balanced perfectly, riding the waves. Underneath was the phrase:
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.
The mantra is our surfboard. You cannot suppress or get rid of your thoughts; they will be there just like the waves. You accept them as the part of you that they are and just ride them skilfully. At times you fall of your surfboard, but just climb back on again. As Samuel Becket said: ‘Try and fail, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better’. At other times it is easy to stay on your surfboard and joyfully ride the waves, and thus enter the silence.
At this stage, when we enter the silence, it is important to remember that our conditioned self, the ‘ego’, does not want us to move out of its sphere of influence; it wants to keep us on the surface. It encourages us to identify with these thoughts, emotions, masks and roles. It does not want us to get in touch with the deeper parts of our consciousness, because it has deposited there in the first level any experiences that threatened our survival and it does not want us to deal with any of them.
We do need the ego, the survival instinct, but it is sometimes like an over-protective parent, wanting to keep the children safe and close by, not allowing them to develop and learn independently. Going into the silence, is initially like leaving home, in order to arrive at our true home.
What does the ego do when we take the plunge into silence? Often it increases our thoughts. When, however, we manage to surf those and enter the silence, the ego encourages us to let go of the mantra. We may convince ourselves that the mantra disturbs the peace. If we listen to the voice of our ego and let go of our surfboard, we just float (or sink!) into ‘pax perniciosa’ or ‘holy floating’, and thus the ego has succeeded in hindering our progress. If this fails, the ego may ask us: ‘Isn’t this boring, just repeating a word? What a con!’ If we are still meditating after that, it might try a different approach, prompting us to ask, ‘Am I sure that this is the right method or the right mantra? Should I change my mantra?’ Again the ego is making sure you are not going anywhere! The only way is to persevere – to faithfully meditate despite distractions.
By Kim Nataraja, Director of The School of Meditation, WCCM
This article was originally published in the UK Newsletter Autumn 2013