The breakthrough came when I realised that the one common piece of practical advice – the essential component of all of these spiritual philosophies and mystical paths was meditation. So I decided that I would just have to take the plunge and start meditating.
A few words about meditation may help clarify what we are talking about here. Meditation is basically about changing your state of consciousness and stilling the mind of the normal chatter that goes on all the time in most people’s minds. Most of us have an internal voice that talks constantly, maybe mulling over things that have just happened and frequently worrying about what is going to happen in the future. The chattering stops automatically when we are really engrossed in something, such as watching a film or TV or concentrating on some physical or mental activity.
The changed state of consciousness is also associated with changes in the frequency of brain waves. In our usual state the brain waves are in one frequency range but in meditation this frequency changes. Typically during meditation you feel more relaxed and your breathing is slower and you may feel a bit ‘spaced out’. There are various ways of getting into this state, according to the different spiritual disciplines, but the most common one is probably to focus on your breathing. You may also focus your vision on an object or recite a mantra (i.e. a word or phrase that you repeat over and over) which effectively blocks out other thoughts. The meditative state is very similar, if not identical, to the trance state, achieved through hypnosis, or the semi dreamy state just before you go to sleep or just after you wake up.
At the time I didn’t understand much about it – I just realised that it was the first step I needed to take if I wanted to progress spiritually. Interestingly, mainstream Christianity seems to be suspicious of meditation. The usual arguments against it are either that the mantras are names of Hindu, or some other, deity and therefore not of God and potentially demonic. Hence you are opening yourself up to potentially damaging occult forces. Or, if you go for the blanking the mind approach, that you are opening yourself up to demonic forces by emptying your mind. At least these were the impressions I had, from my Christian upbringing, and of course they are powerful fears.
Now, if you ask most people involved with meditation they would say that this is complete nonsense and that it is perfectly safe to meditate. They may admit that the mantras are the names of various deities but would argue that these are positive forces anyway so there is no problem. My current view is that meditation does open up certain gateways into the spiritual realm and that there are some negative ‘forces’ or ‘energies’ within that realm. However, there are also certain inbuilt protection mechanisms that generally protect you from any harm with basic meditation. Nevertheless the world of spirit is something for which we should have a healthy respect. There is no doubt that there are inherent dangers if one goes too far without understanding what one is doing. It is therefore a good idea to follow some good advice and an established path under the guidance of someone experienced.
Now I would guess that any Christian reading these words would be saying ‘aha – there you go, it’s dangerous – don’t do it!’ At least that was the reaction of my Mum and would have been my reaction when I was in that mindset. I have read a lot of Christian books and, unless things have radically changed, which I doubt very much, meditation is still regarded with the same suspicion now as it was when I was in the circle around 30 years ago. And I do apologise if I am speaking out of turn here!
The point here is that there are dangers to everything if you don’t know what you are doing. Driving a car would be a simple example. Clearly you don’t expect to be able to get into a car and drive it safely without any instruction. I could use more examples but that would be fatuous. It is plainly obvious to anyone that almost anything can be potentially dangerous if you don’t understand the risks and learn how to avoid them. Having said that, basic meditation is little more than relaxation which has proven health benefits that are very commonly known.
On the other hand, I do believe that many ‘spiritual’ people wrongly assume that there are no dangers in meditation or spiritual development, and I think this is one of the great dangers in our current era. There is a great awakening of spiritual awareness and a veritable smorgasbord of delectable spiritual dishes to tickle the psychic taste-buds. But I think that there is a general lack of awareness of some of the basic disciplines and safeguards that one should take note of and apply in order to avoid potential psychic harm – although much of this is like illness, which can be cured, rather than permanent disability or death.
Anyway, back to my decision that I needed to meditate. I compared this to swimming. I had been walking around the pool watching people swim, or at least reading about how to do it, all the different strokes and variations upon them. But I was really no closer to being able to swim. Riding a bike is similar. The only way to develop spiritually is through experience. It is an experiential learning process. For me this required a shift from left-brain to right brain and where Christine was ready to step in – but still firmly behind the screen and under the control of Mr Analytical Mind.
I bought a set of CDs called ‘Guided Mindfulness Meditation’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was a great introduction for me. It is from the yoga tradition – but the ‘mindfulness’ bit is quite Buddhist. Anyway it outlines a programme over a few weeks of guided meditations (where you listen to Jon telling you exactly what to do). It begins with a full body scan where you go through your whole body, bit by bit, tensing and relaxing everything in sequence. It takes close on an hour – but is really quite enjoyable and got me started on the whole meditation path. After a couple of weeks it gets you into some more yoga related positions and meditations which I found didn’t really suit me – but at least I had started.
Now, me being me, I wanted to try out different styles of meditation to compare and contrast and see what suited me. I proceeded to buy various books, attended a Christian meditation talk (there is actually a small Christian meditation organisation!) and tried out various different methods. This approach has continued over the last several years.
Personally I like to alternate between various forms of meditation including:
Focusing on the breathing, stopping the internal dialogue (the chatter) and then focusing on something like love or peace or harmony. The key, for me, here is to sense the feeling that lies behind the word. When I say the word ‘love’ or imagine a situation in which love is expressed it conjures up a sensation that is not an image, or a sound or a physical feeling but it is a spiritual awareness of what love means. I then try to hold onto that abstract awareness of, what appears to me to be, the ‘essence’ of love. What I believe I am doing in this process is connecting spiritually with the ‘love’ ‘thought-form’ which is a very high spiritual principle in the spiritual hierarchy – an essential quality of God, if you like. This is a pure spiritual connection. (I’ll be talking about thought-forms soon – they are very important). James Porter-Mills, a writer in the early 20th Century, was a great protagonist of this style of meditation – I have not seen it written about quite as well by anyone else – and it is actually my favourite style of mediation. It actually feels really good if you can focus on these abstract thoughts, even for a few seconds, but this is quite difficult, but very rewarding. It really feels like I am drinking from a well of pure spiritual energy – the living waters of eternal life.
The second one I have settled on is when I am out running or walking in nature where I simply like to listen to the sound of the birds. This is so basic, and yet so profound. You will find that in daylight you can hear the sound of birds pretty much anywhere (except in an air conditioned building or on a form of transport e.g. aircraft or train). The random nature of the birdsong is actually extremely difficult to concentrate on – but if you can it can be extremely rewarding. Interestingly when birdsong was put on the radio as a gap-filler it became one of the most popular stations on the airwaves. On a rational level it always reminds me of the simplicity of life that goes on when we stop our endless concerns with our rushed modern lives. The birds just sing all day long – without a care in the world. They eat, fly, sleep and just get on with life – no worries. Jesus was wise to this when he talked about the sparrows.
I also use guided meditations, which I put on my iPod. These generally talk you through a series of visual images, e.g. walking through forest or imagining a moonlit scene. These are often put together by people who understand the archetypal concepts and the ‘thought-forms’ that they are invoking and they can be both relaxing and enlightening – awakening profound connections with positive spiritual energies. Some of these invoke powerful religious symbols – which are themselves outward representations of thought-forms that have been lovingly created and sustained by spiritually advanced individuals over many aeons. This type of meditation can allow our spiritual being to commune and absorb these potent energies which nourish our higher levels of awareness.
Personally I have never got on very well with mantras, although I’m sure they work very well for some people. I find that I am so focused on the mantra that it seals me into a lower level of awareness and actually prevents my spiritual awareness from opening up.
I am also not keen on a pure emptying of the mind. My view is that if you are going into a meditative state you are better off focusing on something positive, like love, rather than just emptiness. Again the Buddhist philosophy on meditation, as I understand it, focuses on emptying the mind and by that route achieves enlightenment, but this doesn’t gel with me – although I’m sure it is a perfectly fine way for others. Similarly just focusing on the breathing doesn’t do a great deal for me, although it is a good start to any meditation to relax the body and get into the right mental state.
As I’ve said before I am a bit of an experimenter and I don’t like to be limited to any one way of doing things. I am fiercely resistant to being a member of one sect or another or following anything with an ‘ism’ at the end of it. What tends to happen is that someone finds a way that works for them (and it could work extremely well – for them) and they write it down. Others then see them as a spiritual example and decide that they need to do exactly what their ‘guru’ or spiritual leader did. This then becomes a religion. ‘The way our great master did it is the best or only way and we must follow exactly what he did to achieve the same results. No. No. No!
That way worked for him, at his point of spiritual development, with his cultural and education background, with his underlying metaphors, with his personality traits. The fact is that everyone is unique and therefore needs their own specific way of doing things. Of course this in itself is a way of doing things, perhaps the way of the anarchist – which then becomes anarchism! In reality not everyone can define their own way, or even wants to spend the time investigating or experimenting with the alternatives and so it is much easier to follow someone else’s way. Certainly, to start with at least, it is a good idea to follow some instruction from someone else – but ultimately I think that everyone should know that they are likely to be better off by having the confidence to try different approaches and to find what works for them. If I ever find myself in a position where I am guiding someone on a spiritual path I will give them exercises to try many different approaches and encourage them to experiment to find out what works for them. In the same way that I would never tell someone what to order on a menu, but may suggest a few alternatives, based on what I have enjoyed in the past.
One of the criticisms often levelled at modern spirituality by the traditionalists, often from the mainstream church, is that religion has become a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach. This is used as a derogatory term. In my view this is the way it should be. Everyone is different. We are each unique expressions of an infinitely creative divine spirit. We should not expect that what works for one person will work for someone else. I have read countless books where the author tries to describe a particular set of exercises that one should follow. I would advocate reading these and trying out the exercises – but not to follow them slavishly believing that they are the only way. They are the way that the writer has found works for them, and maybe others, but as a society we are prone to accept what others tell us as being the ‘right’ way. This is a fallacy when it comes to spiritual growth. There is only one way for each of us, and that is our own way, which will be unique to us – and we need to develop the confidence to take our own path.
Perhaps in what I am saying I am defining a path in itself – so be it – I can only say what I think – and what works for me! There you go, I’m exactly the same as all the rest.