Last weekend I was fortunate to be able to participate in a meditation weekend at Builth Wells. The experience was organised so that three facilitators shared their sense of how the meditative faculty might be facilitated with three groups of about fifteen people who moved from facilitator to facilitator over the course of the weekend. Hopefully everyone found something from among the experiences shared that helped them move further down the road of exploring this special state of mind. I thought it might be worth sharing the basic notes used to structure the sessions I was involved in. So, here they are with a few pictures thrown in for good measure.
Overview (15 minutes)
The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship” must needs be observed . . . .”
(Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238 US edition, page 152 UK edition)
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 68)
This weekend gives an opportunity to explore different approaches to what is usually referred to as meditation. Many years ago, when I was exploring Buddhism, I discovered that it might not be wise to advocate any one form of meditation as suitable for everyone. A school of Tibetan Buddhism had an approach that surprised me at the time. Each novice monk or nun who enrolled in this order was each given their own unique meditative path on the grounds that no two people will benefit from exactly the same process. Each mantra and each mandala were created specially for each acolyte.
The Bahá’í position is in part the same. We do not teach any particular form of meditation though we are all encouraged to meditate. We each have to discover our own best path.
As a psychologist I am well aware that we all differ in crucial respects that will affect our preferred meditative path. Some of us are very visual and can summon up vivid pictures in our minds – I’m not one of those for sure; others respond most strongly to hearing with a feeling for the sounds of words even when they repeat them silently in their minds; others are labelled kinaesthetic, and I am one such, and respond best of all to sensation and movement, so exercises such as following the breath work well for them.
The aim, though, of all approaches to meditation is to enable us to quieten the mind, separate our consciousness from the constant film show and chatter we have learned to mistake for who we really are, and gain increased awareness of our true spiritual core, hidden behind these veils.
One of the images used in the Bahá’í Writings to help us understand this is the mirror: it is interesting therefore that we find the word ‘reflection’ also used to describe the skill we are seeking to learn. Not only do we have to cleanse the mirror of dirt before it can reflect exactly what is before it, we need to understand as well that if the mind is like a mirror it is also never what is reflected in it.
In this way we can avoid two deadly traps.
When we have turned the mirror of our hearts and minds towards worldly things we can make the mistake of assuming that the reflection of this material version of reality is who we really are and what the world is really like. When we do this we are caught in a trance that keeps us shackled to materialism.
When we have cleansed the mirror of our heart, and it is turned towards the world of the spirit and has begun to reflect the glory we find there, we can make the mistake of thinking we are glorious. The pride that follows will destroy us spiritually. We have to realise we are not the glory. We are only a channel for this spiritual power, just like a mirror that shines the sun’s light into a dark cave.
As you may have already worked out by now, the meditative approaches I will be sharing play to my relative strengths: they involve sensations and sounds, especially words. If, by trying these out patiently over a reasonable period of time, they clearly do not work for you, that is not a problem. There will be an approach that works for you somewhere, and hopefully you will find pointers in that direction during this weekend.
I just would like to add that in the Bahá’í Faith we don’t see this kind of private reflection as the only spiritual discipline. We also believe that when people come together, whether as family, as friends or in some form of work environment, and consult with one another to solve a problem or make a plan, this consultation works best when it draws on the same state of detachment as we can develop in meditation, and when it does it is a spiritual process too. We cannot compare our different views of reality effectively and develop a new understanding if we are so attached to what we think and feel we are unable to hear and learn from what others say.
As a result of the consistent practice of these twin disciplines, in a context of awareness that all living things are deeply interconnected, we will be able to achieve a level of consciousness that increasingly corresponds to what Bahá’u’lláh describes in the second quote at the head of this hand-out, where ‘the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment’ are manifested. We will then be more capable of effectively addressing the problems that face us all at this crisis point in our civilisation.
First Experience to Test the Water (20 minutes maximum)
First we need to spend a few moments practising tuning into our body and our breathing so as to begin to process of calming down so we can have the best chance of silencing the chatter in our heads. [Spend a few moments body scanning and following the breath to settle the mind.]
Next, can we all remember the words of part of a song, poem, prayer or piece of prose, which is positive and uplifting? [If so, spend five minutes or so with everyone attempting to maintain focus as they silently repeat the words in their minds.]
Finally for this part, please can we share how that worked for us?
Beginning to Learn How to Separate Consciousness from its Contents
At the beginning I mentioned that one goal of meditation, and a very important one, is for us to experience the fact that we are not what we think, feel and intend, anymore than we are who or what we have come to believe we are. This is easier said than done, as I have discovered over the years.
To help us take the first step on this long ladder I have borrowed and adapted an exercise from Psychosynthesis. It has a rather off-putting title: disidentification. Basically, all it means is spending a few moments every day repeating to ourselves a description of the true reality: we are not our thoughts, feelings or intentions. We are instead a centre of pure consciousness and will, as they describe it. [Give out the Disidentification handout adapted from Psychosynthesis to separate out clearly what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regards as three separate powers of the soul: knowing (here expressed as the basic ability, thought, that rises at its highest to wisdom), loving (here feeling whose highest expression might be termed compassion), and willing (whose highest expression might be the disposition towards altruistic action).Explain that before we start the exercise itself it is important to spend a few moments grounding ourselves by body scanning and/or following the breath. Spend 15 minutes on this. The link with developing what is termed detachment is fairly clear, I hope.
At the end, we can take a few minutes to share our experiences and reflect upon them.
Using a Mantram (25 Minutes)
There are many ways we could now choose to help us move nearer to the goal of achieving awareness of pure consciousness. As I explained earlier, my own meditative experiences have focused on words and sensations. Following the breath has always helped me quieten my mind down preparatory to using other powerful techniques.
This next method is deceptively simple but very effective, in my view.
We all have heard of the mantram, I’m sure: a short phrase or even a single word or sound that is repeated silently in the mind for significant periods of time in meditative practice and then can be used in other situations to help us calm down and become grounded. An excellent explanation of this method can be found in Eknath Easwaran’s rewarding book on meditation: Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life.
He first of all makes clear that he does not see meditation as a kind of hypnosis nor any kind of navel gazing or rumination (page 9):
[Meditation] is, rather, a systematic technique for taking hold of and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists in training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.
He speaks of ‘the great discovery’ (page 24-25):
As long as we identify with the body and the mind we bob around on the surface level of consciousness, chasing after the fleeting attractions of life outside us.… now, in profound meditation, we drop below all that and become concentrated on one thing and one thing alone: our true identity. In this absorption, this great gathering within, we break through the surface of consciousness and plummet deep, deep into our real nature.
He recommends the mantram as something portable, that need not be confined to the quietness of a room set aside for meditation. He explains the origin of the term (page 59): the word is linked to ‘the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind. An apt image, for the mind very much resembles the sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next.’
For him, the mantram links us to (page 60) ‘the supreme Reality,’ whatever we choose to call it:
What matters greatly is that we discover – experientially, not intellectually – that this supreme Reality rests at the inmost centre of our being. . . . the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.
He feels that (page 70) ‘the mantram works best when we repeat it silently in the mind with as much concentration as possible.’ He’s not in favour of counting with beads or linking it to the breath because it divides attention. He also feels strongly that once we have chosen our mantram we must stick with and not keep chopping and changing it.
In the Bahá’í Faith we are given something we can use in this way if we wish. It is what we call the Greatest Name: Alláh-u-Abhá (‘God the All-Glorious’). We are required to repeat this 95 times every day: it is an obligation to do so. To then also use it as our mantram, a separate though related spiritual skill, seems an obvious step to take, though we are free, of course, to choose something else if we wish.
Those of us here who come from other spiritual traditions, or perhaps no spiritual tradition at all, will have to give some thought to what can be used instead. It is important that, at the very least, the word(s) or sounds(s) chosen do not have any negative connotations. What are for us neutral or relatively meaningless sounds such as ‘Om’, can none the less be effective, at least to a degree, as they serve to give the distracted mind something to hold onto to help it turn away from all the chatter and become calmer and quieter.
Words with spiritual meaning for us are preferable, as they also have the effect of facilitating the connection we are seeking to make with the truest core of our being. If words are used they should be no more than a very short phrase such as Easwaran suggests (pages 65-66): Ave Maria, the Hebrew Barukh attah Adonai (‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord), from Islam Allah u Akbar (God is Great), Lord Jesus Christ, or Om mani padme hum (‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’). Easwaran feels strongly (page 70) that we should ‘choose a mantram that has been sanctified by long use – one of proven power, that has enabled many men and women before [us] to realize the unity of life.’
For the purposes of this experience it is fine to make a provisional choice that can be changed later.
A key point to remember is that repeating a mantram is not like lifting a weight in an exercise regime. The repeated lifting of a weight will strengthen our muscle even if, at the same time, we are thinking about what we had for breakfast or the film we watched last night. Not so with a mantram. If we repeat it on automatic pilot while our mind wanders among the daisies there will be no benefit.
We must insist that our mind focuses on every repetition. If it has wandered we must bring it back, not in anger but firmly nonetheless. The best way to make our minds understand that we mean business is to build in a cost, such as adding on extra minutes of meditation time for every period of distraction longer than brief moment. [Then follows about 10 minutes practice.]
At the end we need to reflect upon how the experience went.
Using a Memorised Passage (45 minutes)
This may prove to be the hardest part of this set of experiences. It involves using a passage that we have learned by heart. Our culture tends to despise rote learning and describes it as learning ‘parrot fashion.’ (Not that I have anything against parrots. They’re very bright for a bird.) As a result many of us nowadays do not feel confident when trying to learn anything by heart, and are probably not very motivated to do so anyway as we think it a waste of time.
Parroting facts may really not be very useful if we do not understand their underlying meaning as a result of careful, creative and independent thought. Spiritual words though operate on many different levels, as Easwaran explains (page 9):
An inspirational passage turns our thoughts to what is permanent, to those things that put a final end to insecurity. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.
This not to say that we can keep on using the same passage indefinitely (pages 39-40):
Using the same passage over and over is fine at the outset, but in time, the words may seem stale. You may find yourself repeating them mechanically, without sensitivity to their meaning. I suggest you memorise new pieces from [various religious] traditions so you will have a varied repertoire. As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating.
He adds another crucial piece of advice (ibid.):
. . . avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and deprecatory view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw forth our positive side, our higher Self . . . .
We need to spend a few moments now quietly deciding what passage we are going to use. Then, after grounding ourselves as usual, we can begin 10-15 minutes of meditation on the passage we have chosen. How should we do this? As Easwaran points out (page 32), we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’
If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot get away with wandering: there is a price to pay.
In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text.
After that a few moments of reflection can follow, first of all on the meditation we have just done, and then upon the whole experience of the morning/afternoon. Among the hoped for results of all these experiences in a felt sense as well as intellectual understanding of how a mantra and meditation upon scripture help us move away from our identification with our conditioned patterns of thought and feeling to connect with our deepest self, a connection that will enable us to tune in more effectively to the people around us. As a result of this we will be able to respond to them as they are and in terms of what they need rather than to what we think they should be, as well as being able to learn from them what will help us grow in our turn.