My Adventures with Meditation

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My history of meditation is humorous since I have approached meditation with the same fast-food consciousness that Americans tend to approach all aspects of their lives from diet to human relations. The first time I meditated I was sixteen years old. I had just read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and I picked-up some of the descriptions of the Buddha’s mental exercises. I rode my bicycle to Sausalito’s rocky beach, assumed the lotus pose, and “projected” myself into a lone seagull, as if I were one with him and soaring through the air carried by the wind. I identified with the water and the rocks and sensed the relation of these elements to one another. Although I only mediated in this way occasionally (about as long as I was enthralled with Siddhartha which for an adolescent lasts a fortnight), perhaps for this brief time, I was closer to the truth than I would be for many years. For in the interim years, I learned to value above all the use of language and argument in the pursuit of truth, and, in fact, in the world I constructed, words, language and the assumptions which supported verbal formulations were truth (for truth, I had learned, was a construction).

Practical Science-based Meditation

Sometime in the mid-1970s as a New York yuppie, I read Herbert Benson’s book titled The Relaxation Response. The method suggested that the simple repetition of a word such as “one” repeated at every out-breath could significantly reduce blood pressure and the likelihood of heart attacks as effectively as medication and without negative side effects. In my high stress life style, I employed Benson’s method for the requisite 20 minutes with much the same mindset as health conscious yuppies engage Nordic Track equipment. From time to time during haircuts, my barber and I would discuss meditation (he was a long-time transcendental meditator), but I figured I was more grounded than he because my approach to meditation was based in science, and his approach in commercial mysticism.

Yoga and Meditation

In 1981 in my quest for a better life, I moved to Princeton, New Jersey. During my Siddhartha period in adolescence, I had studied Hatha yoga for a brief period with Swami Vishnu Devananda (who at that time had just gotten off the boat as a lithe young man). The yoga class was held at a local Unitarian Church with perhaps 20 middle-aged women, myself as the only male adolescent, and maybe the only male (I was too naive to see the possibilities, even in fantasy.) Since that period I had practiced yoga poses off and on, mostly off, but with my move to Princeton, my interest in yoga was resurrected.
Yoga, properly practiced, is a method of meditation. The yoga postures serve as ideal forms in relation to which the body is aligned. Coupled with yogic breathing, controlled and measured inhalation and exhalation according to proscribed formulas, the practitioner develops an “embodied” awareness. The same kind of awareness is developed in the practice of Ti Che. If practiced a concentrative spirit, the martial arts similarly promote awareness of body and the dance of life.
If I had earlier understood that hatha yoga is a meditative discipline aimed at liberation and how this works, I might have practiced yoga with an entirely different spirit than the spirit in which, in fact, I practiced it. For much of life, I assimilated Hatha yoga to “physical” culture and viewed it as utilitarian exercise. Therefore as a proper American, I forced my body into positions (“You will submit”), and paid for the discipline by lower back pain.

Mantra Meditation

For a brief period in Princeton once a week at god-awful 7:00 AM, I practiced the melodic incantation of mantras under the tutelage of Indian master of the art, and once a week at more civilized times, yoga postures with an assorted group of senior citizens in a cavernous space on Princeton University’s campus. Certainly, I was “ready”  to find some truth or better relation to life’s purposes. Unfortunately, I practiced mantra meditation with a healthy dose of Western scepticism –the mantra practice was not grounded in a deeper tradition of cultural familiarity and discipline. I fared no better with the magical mantra dispensed by Muktananda (in contrast to Maharishi’s fee-based mantra). At that time, I experienced mantra based meditation no differently than I had Benson’s method, simply a repetition of words which, when repeated in a sustained way would induce, after a sufficient, period of time, a sense of calm and peace.

In the yogic tradition, “effective” mantras are voiced with sustained vowels which create resonant bodily vibration localized in different sectors of the body. In a manner analogous to Hatha yoga postures, attention is focused upon the sound and bodily resonance through which awareness and resonance obtain unity. In Eastern traditions, these resonances are linked with centers of organized energy within the body, the “chakras”, and a theophany of symbols of creation, continuation, and dissolution. In mundane mantra traditions, the sources and symbols associated with mantras overshadow mantra practice, itself. The experienced “resonant” energies are replaced by magical invocation. Experience is subordinated to the word, the myth, the injunction. The Master with whom I practiced certainly taught mantra meditation with full attention to the resonant properties of sound, but I assimilated his teaching to mere invocation.

Calming the Mind-Waters: Meditation and Retreat

Eventually, my quest for a ground (and a vacation) led me full circle to my old teacher Swami Vishnudevananda. Twenty eight years after his arrival, “Vishnu” (for short) had become a major spiritual player. He had established four ashrams in North America with several “city” centers and an ashram in India. I took off from my psychoanalytic practice to spend a month in Nassau, the Bahamas, to brush-up my yoga. No doubt I had nurtured fantasies of a tropical vacation fed by Vishnu’s seductive advertisements in Yoga magazine of “teacher training on Paradise Island” with pictures of white sands and nubile maidens in head stands.

What a rude shock I experienced when the protocol required rising every morning at 5:00 A.M. for early morning ritual and prayer, followed by three hours of yoga, to a belated “breakfast” of vegetables, succeeded by karma yoga (work), more classes, another three hours of yoga, more vegetables, more classes, and evening ritual and prayer, so that the entire day, from morning to evening was regimented in the manner of a traditional Indian ashram.

Regimentation can focus the mind. The same ritual, actions, movements, repeated again and again, with minimal variation, distraction or new stimulation, can provide a foundation for closer attention and penetration. If the heart and mind are set with a proper attitude, ashram, monastic existence, and hermitage can provide conditions that support serenity and a sustained (if quiet) spirituality.

However as the consummate product of Western education, I saw ashram existence as antithetical to individuality, and the sameness of everyday practices as stultification. In no way at that time could I have supported ashram existence except as a historical or cultural curiosity, and, for myself, a necessary inconvenience. Nevertheless on my return to Princeton, the ashram experience marked the end of my smoking habit –no smoking was permitted– and consolidated my vegetarian dietary practice (I had become more or less vegetarian a year to two earlier).

The De-Galvanized Mind

Around this time I met my future psychoanalyst, colleague, and friend, Harmon Ephron, and his wife, Pat Carrington, at their home just outside of Princeton for dinner. Pat Carrington had developed a method called “Clinically Standardized Meditation” based on Maharishi’s transcendental meditation. In a series of studies with Princeton undergraduates where Pat was an adjunct professor, she demonstrated significant cognitive and emotional benefits with a twenty minute daily meditation. In brief, meditators obtained higher grades, dealt with stress more adaptively, and, for certain tasks, were more creative. Meditation provided functional advantages. Pat had summarized the results of her efforts in a bantam paperback which at that time provided one of the best overviews of the scientific literature on meditation available.

At the time of our meeting, I had not known about Pat’s extensive contributions to the literature, and although we discussed meditation, I was particularly interested at that time in Jung’s ideas about synchronicity. Pat did not put much stock into the idea, and so at the end of dinner, I said if any synchronous events occur within the next week or so, I would call her. To this day, I think that this was an unusual statement for me to make for I think I only half believed the idea myself. The next day after I had secured a copy of Pat’s book on meditation, I went to the laundromat to wash some clothes and while I was attending to the wash, I left the book on top of one of the counters. The book title caught the eye of a woman who was folding her laundry, and she asked how did I like the book. I said spontaneously, “I liked it much better than Benson’s The Relaxation Response. She seemed particularly interested in my opinion about Benson’s book which, no doubt, I offered in my professorial style. After my review, she revealed that she was co-author of Benson’s book, and, in fact, on that very day, she was moving from her Princeton home where she had lived for five years to her new New York condominium purchased with the settlement she had received from Benson who had not credited her in earlier editions of the book. In fact, she would not even be at the laundromat if she were not moving since her house had a washing machine. As we talked, the litany of apparent, unexpected congruences expanded. She described life circumstances and choices which paralleled, but diverged in particular ways, from my current girl friend. Like my (then) girlfriend, she had received her undergraduate education at Barnard but chose to obtain her law degree from Yale while my girlfriend went to a lesser law school. She had gone to Yale because she rejected the provincial in-breeding of New York institutions, a point I felt deeply about at that time and had often communicated to my girlfriend. The synchrony of our meeting two days after my challenge to Pat seemed to include a welcome confirmation of my views about significant life choices.

According to Pat and Harmon, one of the main functions of clinically standardized meditation was a psychological “de-galvanizing” of emotionally laden material. So conceived, a principal function of meditation is to simply let what troubles the self “go”, not to obsess, but to observe. The pattern of mind continually shifts, what arises passes away. About a decade after her work on clinically standardized meditation for self-help treatment of obsessions and intrusions, Pat became somewhat more “systematic” about the process inherent in meditation, and counseled attention to what was troubling, and a “willed” “letting go”. This caused the Sedona Institute to sue Pat for copyright infringement because the Sedona Institute believed that it “owned” this process, or perhaps it was the term “letting go.” Anyway, the Sedona Institute would not let go, and due to limited financial resources, Pat had to call back her book on “Releasing”.

By the mid-1980s I had concluded mantras were redundant, breath meditation seemed empty, and, as a basic method of meditation, releasing seemed contrived. Gradually the method of meditation into which I drifted was a kind of mindfulness: I aimed to be aware of my awareness. In this state, my mind would continue its constant constructions and reflections, and I could let it rattle on as it pleased, but I could remove myself from engagement with its deliberations and observe myself. Even transient “awareness of awareness” permitted a new sense of consciousness which was serene, steady, whole, heart and mind, suffused with grace. The problem with this method was that I was easily “caught up” in my thoughts and constructions, and many minutes would pass before I could return to awareness of awareness. Since I had long ago noted that “de-galvanizing” took real time and that a second meditation was always “quieter” than the first, perhaps, I thought, sustained and disciplined meditation would yield awareness which would reveal the depths of the self.

Meditation and Enlightenment

At this point, let me admit that I heard the idea that a traditional goal of meditation was “enlightenment”, but “enlightenment” did not square well with a functional approach to meditation unless it could be operationalized. When operationalized, I found the definitions of enlightenment fuzzy and unconvincing. “To be in the moment”, Hipsters were “in the moment.” “To be non-judgmental”, plants are non-judgmental. “Bliss absolute”, try drugs. When I’d observe gurus of assorted denominations, more often than not, I’d wonder where’s the guru? In the person beheld or in the mind of the beholder?
Simultaneously, I believed that the great Asian traditions indicated an attainable state of being with redemptive significance. The strongest support for this intuition did not arise from reading, but from the great twelfth century wood carving of the Buddha of infinite compassion in the Asian courtyard of the San Diego Museum of Art. The Buddha sits with his arm akimbo over his leg. He gazes into the distance with a look which conveys knowledge of the sorrow and sweetness of life. He radiates serenity, love, and boundless compassion born out of experience. He is human, all too human, suffused with an awareness which grounds him beyond time.

Zen Discipline

When I moved to San Francisco in September, 1994, I arrived to reside at the San Francisco Zen Center. I had studied and practiced Chen Buddhism in San Diego for more than a year and flirted with Tibetan Buddhism, but I was not entirely prepared for the barracks-like atmosphere of the Zen Center. The Japanese are a martial culture with roots in the samurai tradition. Jews obey the law and deliberate the Torah. When Jews become Japanese, and Moses meets Abhidharma, formal adherence to rule becomes absolute. In the early years of the Zen Center, form-ridden Zen was leaven by Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, and Beat philosophy. By 1994, Beat was a shadow memory, and only an echo remained.
The Soto Zen philosophy of the Zen Center emphasized right form, right posture, and disciplined attention to detail in action and performance of ritual and meditation. The action of “just sitting”, itself, was enlightenment, and, so in a form-oriented Zen, there was much sitting of just sitting. Much sitting culminates in a seven day sesshin of just sitting fifteen hours a day. The seven day sesshin occurs at the conclusion of a practice period, a three to four month span of time where dharma talks emphasize a central theme (such as the brevity of life, the nature of time, or other such conditions that relate to the ground of experience and existence).

During my stay at the Zen Center, I was introduced to the Prajna Paramita and an abundance of inspired Buddhist teaching. As Christianity focuses its effort and energy upon comprehension of the historically bounded Judeo-Christian God, Buddhism places its attention upon the essential absolute. For this reason, as Christianity is bound to a socio- historical perspective, Buddhism transcends epochs.

Mindfulness Meditation

At the conclusion of a practice period, I left the Zen Center grateful for the experience, but delighted to be freed from the regimentation. I continued my style of meditation augmented by the deep springs of traditional Buddhist inspiration. I ventured into the literature on “mindfulness meditation” well represented by current books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, and Mark Epstein. One of the central themes of mindfulness meditation is to be where you are, not to fend-off or run-away from inner or outer experience, but to enter it. In one way, this seemed completely familiar, and in another way, a promise within reach, but not attained.

Meditation and Psychoanalysis

The familiar quality of mindfulness meditation arose from my experience as a patient and a therapist in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis provides a guided tour of the inner world, with the psychoanalyst the tour-guide. The fundamental rule of analysis is that patients freely report everything that occurs to consciousness. Correlatively, patients are not to resist expression of images, thoughts, and feelings that occur in analysis. Therefore, nothing is too trivial for examination. A mind poise of self-observation is created. The process of analysis, through adherence to the fundamental rule, renders conscious shades of feeling, self-judgments, evasions, lapses, and the landscape of the inner world.

The process of analysis, as practiced by most analysts, stands at the border of meditation, or threads back and forth within the region of meditation and ordinary consciousness. Analysis approximates meditation so long as the analyst promotes concentration upon feelings, images, and thoughts to stimulate new awareness. Analysis turns “rational” when the analyst interprets. Awareness of the moment, concentration on present sensation, feeling, image, or thought is one leg of meditation, and the other is comprehension of the mind’s products through rational illumination. Rational illumination is not mere comprehension, but arises from meditation upon rationale: Where the object of meditation is some construction of relations or plausible connections which pass as an explanation.
In analysis, both meditation on the immediate and meditation upon relations are necessary for personal coherence. The same, I believe, is true in religious systems.

Patanjali, the return to sources

For all my meditation and my practice of analysis, I felt stuck in my meditation practice. I had maintained a steady state, but the steady state seemed to be going nowhere. Now I realize the idea of progress, in some sense, is antithetical to the practice of meditation, but even the most austere meditation systems have some gauge of level of attainment –and, from where I sat (literally), I sensed little movement. The question can legitimately be raised, what could I expect from a hour a day when the sages (like the Soto zen practitioners) spent many, many hours per day, over very long periods of time. I will leave the question unaddressed for the time being, but suffice it say that I believe conscientious practice should yield a discernable result, even if it is not so dramatic as enlightenment, and it should be more than a discernable drop in heart-rate and blood pressure.
Perhaps I was ready for change since I again read Patanjali’s Aphorisms on Yoga. In the fifth century BC, Patanjali summarized the wisdom of yoga in a set of practical injunctions. I had first read James Woods’ commentary on the Aphorisms in the mid- 1970s. My response to Patanjali’s advice in the 1970s was that his approach was too elementary.
Perhaps over the years, something did shift in my way of thinking (my god! what a discovery!): Patanjali’s approach to meditation was a revelation. In his treatise, Patanjali derives meditation from concentration.

To concentrate, visualize the object or otherwise hold it in mind. Examine it from various point of view and perspectives. With the object firmly in constant attention, allow thoughts about the object to come to mind which may include memories and reflections, contrasts and similarities, and the like, but always the reference base for such mental activity is the attended-to object. Always maintain attention to the object as each new thought, feeling, or image arises, and note this information in relation to the object. Sooner or later, you will exhaust the process of purely discursive thought and associations about the object.

Now enter into the object: Become one with the object as recommended by Herman Hesse in Siddhartha. If you are concentrating on a gull, then fly with him. Swoop, feel the drafts, the currents, the thousand details of light and shadow, shore and ocean, animate and inanimate nature.

Now permit whatever comes to mind informed by identity with the object to emerge. In this state of mind as I attended to a sunflower, I observed the image of a ring of fire in the void. Perhaps, the image arose by analogy with the golden pedals of the flower and its dark center. Least the flower be taken for granted, its mystery is as great as the cosmic ring. I was reminded of Blake’s couplets, “To see the world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.”

According to Patanjali, the three mind-sets joined together constitute meditation. Meditation is three in one. Meditation, so defined, is a constant adventure, an endless exploration, a discovery process of the utmost significance. Meditation as described by Patanjali is the key to the mundane and the mysterious. It is passage way to the sacred texts. At first, begin with simple concrete objects such as flowers, rocks, symmetrical crystals, the sun, moon, and stars. Consider the primary colors and the basic forms. Reflect on the natural mysteries of birth and death, coming into being, and passing away. Proceed to abstractions, extension, duration, matter, energy, awareness, existence, and whatever your heart or mind pleases. Meditation on the formless brings you to consciousness.
In our frenzied information-driven world, meditation causes us to pause and to experience essences, that is, to genuinely taste the primeval significances of things in ways that may be wholly unexpected and literally a revelation, such as my experience of the sunflower. Most of our knowledge is about things, not of things. Meditation corrects this imbalance and grounds the practitioner in the naturally-given, experiential-symbolic matrix of being.

Forms of Meditation and Patanjali’s Approach

I believe forms of meditation are efficacious only insofar as they overlap with Patanjali’s method. Benson’s method for induction of the relaxation response requires repetition of some word, such as “one” or “peace” with each in-breath or out-breath. This requires some concentration on the task and, to that extent, induces a continuity of mental process. The same is true with the Maharishi Yoga’s Transcendental meditation and Patricia Carrington’s Clinical Standardized Meditation. These methods council the practitioner not to invest attention or emotional energy in intrusive thoughts, but simply to allow them to play out and concentrate on the repeated word.

Benson’s, the Maharishi’s, and Carrington’s methods might be called “mantra-based” meditations. I am somewhat hesitant to call the method this because, in my experience, a substantial difference exists between the voiced mantras which I learned from the traditional Indian Master and those that are unvoiced. In the voiced mantras, the practitioner’s attention is directed to the vibratory quality of the sound which resonates in the chest, throat, or head, depending upon the voiced sound. All, or most of the mantras taught in this tradition, have long, drawn-out, vowel vocalizations. Each mantra is a prayer or invocation to one of the deities. An example of a mantra given in phonetic form is an invocation to Kali: “Eeeeek-Oooong Ka-li”, with first and second vowel sounds extended for as long as the breath allows and still utter Ka-li.

Simultaneously, the practitioner may attend to the deity by visualization, elaboration, or identification. This may be practiced in silent mantra meditation as well with the repetition of the mantra as a device to maintain attention on the object (the deity). The practice of meditation in this form is a variant of Patanjali’s general approach.

Patanjali suggests that meditative exercise progress from “concentration with seed” to “concentration without seed”, that is, from the concrete to the abstract. In like vein, experience in meditation suggests that the practitioner begin with simple objects and progress to more complex ones. Gods, Goddesses, Buddhas, and the symbolized forces of nature are complex visualizations for Westerners who lack a life-long experience with these cultural products. Some schools of Tibetan Buddhism require practitioners to visualize the Buddha at a certain distance, with particular colors for specific clothes, along with special designs, on a particular cushion, and when this is mastered, to visualize additional actors, movements, and so on. Practice of this form gives rise to extraordinary powers of concentration, mental steadiness, and ultimately, following Patanjali’s method, penetration to the deep aspects of mystery (as represented within the tradition).

Soto Zen forces a single-mindedness by attention to detail, posture, and (as an adjunct) the redundancy of the breath. This form of meditation approximates concentration without seed. I believe it is a useful form, just as the approach which I practiced for a long time seems useful: the practice of awareness of awareness. I believe any meditation “without seed” brings awareness to the foreground. What is without seed is supported by awareness. Awareness contains, like a vast reservoir, any and all the objects of awareness. The more “rarified” the object, the less “obscured” the container.

These forms, including Zen, all assume Patanjali’s method, but historically have sometimes become divorced from the primary discipline of concentration. Sometimes, only one aspect of Patanjali’s three-in-one technique of meditation is emphasized, such as visualization. Sometimes traditions have become enraptured of a single object of concentration (a particular mantra) or a particular posture. The effect of this narrowing has been the loss of the richness of meditation (as a technique to discover essences, without regard to content) and a mystification. The mystification arises because one or another school now “owns” enlightenment which befuddles practitioner and non-practitioners alike. Nobody owns meditation. It is a natural potential of all human kind, and it is a skill.

Concentration and “just letting go” are different foci. “letting go” in its various versions is given substantial attention by commentators because Westerners who would attempt to be quiet with themselves usually find themselves preoccupied with obsessions and intrusions. In my experience, a focus on “letting go” may shift the focus of meditation from “absorption” to “distance”. This is 180 degrees apart from the aim of meditation which is to overcome barriers, to connect with the object explored, and to discern essences.
Yogis do not meditate out of discipline, but out of anticipation and joy. May you become yogis.