The Heart of Meditation


Anyone who has practiced meditation for any length of time must, sooner or later, come upon these questions: what is meditation? And who is doing this thing called meditation?

The answers can only come through the practice of meditation itself. In the end, meditation (like everything) is what it is, not what we want it to be or what we think it is. And since what we bring to meditation partly forms what it is, what it is for me is not exactly what it is for anyone else.

That said, what I have found in meditation may be helpful to someone who is looking for a guidepost, who has asked the question, and is having trouble seeing past what she thinks the answer ought to be.

What follows assumes some things about the practice of meditation, which may not be true for all meditators, even those who have been at it for many years. It assumes that meditation is a way of looking inwardly, of taking a look at the operation of the mind and the emotions, at beliefs, at habits of thought and action. It is a method of observing deep conditioning at work. If meditation is not that for you, then what follows may not make much sense.

But if you have observed your thoughts, and not just your breath, if you have watched the repetitive nature of your patterns of behavior, and not just repeated a mantra, then what follows may be of use to you. Or, perhaps it will intrigue you enough to depart from a familiar pattern of meditation and begin to explore the nature of your own being.

In my experience, beginning to meditate, beginning to watch the movement of thought and emotion and reaction, is like opening your personal closet and beginning to sift through all the years' accumulation of stuff.

At first, what you find is mostly the stuff you put on and take off in your daily life, the familiar thoughts and feelings and habits that you use every day to move around in the world. Likes and dislikes. Opinions and beliefs. Prejudices, attractions and aversions.

Stay with it a while, and you dig a little deeper into the closet. As you work your way back into the closet, the stuff gets older. You come upon odds and ends from your past that you just couldn't bring yourself to part with. You find things you had completely forgotten, but they had never left the storehouse of your body/mind memory. You find things you hid because you didn't want them out in the open where others might see them. Embarrassing gifts you don't dare throw out. Childhood toys. Childhood fears.

Push farther into the closet, and discover that the stuff goes on, and on. And down, and down.

Unfortunately, for this little analogy to keep working, it has to be contrived. Please bear with me. Imagine that the apartment where you live is one of many in a cake-like group of apartments. Each apartment is one wedge of the cake. The pleasant facade faces out onto the street. One has Pansies in the window boxes, another Geraniums. Another has no window boxes, and all the shades are pulled down. Your sitting room is furnished in your particular style. The walls are painted in the color you like. You invest a lot of your energy in maintaining the appearance of your apartment. Even the guy two doors down, the one with the shades pulled down, invests a huge amount of energy to keep those shades closed. But that’s another story.

The closet we are imagining lies near the front of your apartment. As you have delved into this closet, you have discovered it is not really a closet at all, but a stairwell that leads down into the cellar. There is one, huge cellar beneath the entire apartment complex, but it is partitioned in such a way that each apartment has its own private storage space.

As you move downward, through the accumulated detritus of your life, you first encounter recent, personal belongings. Things you identify with readily. But as you go along, it gets harder and harder to recall just where this or that thing (memory, sound, feeling) came from. But one way or another, it is all yours.

That is, until you have reached the end of your apartment's segregated storage space. You have reached the end of the familiar and personal, but you have only begun to explore the cellar. One small step away, and your partition ends, and your old junk is now mingling with the junk from other apartments. Keep going toward the center of the cellar, and there is no way of knowing what belongs to whom, or whether such distinctions have any meaning. The stuff around you now is very old indeed. And powerful. Powerful, because this cellar is not only a dumping ground. Like most cellars, it is also a nerve center. The place where all the basic wiring is.

At the farthest reach of your cellar, where the oldest, most powerful, and least personal stuff lies, you are at the center of all the cellars. What lies here belongs to all, and influences all behavior. What lies here manifests in some way in everyone, everywhere.

This journey is no fantasy. You can make it, through careful, practiced, sensitive meditation. But it is not an easy journey to take. That is because, in reality as opposed to analogy, you are the contents of the cellar. You are the apartment and all that lies in the dark beneath it. You can not simply look casually at what lies there, a perfectly objective investigator. To see it, you must embody it.

This is not too hard at first. The most recent stuff you encounter is very familiar. There is even some comfort in the nostalgia of it. Not so comfortable is returning to childhood, becoming a frightened child again. It is the sad truth that the only version of your childhood that you will find here is the frightened one. The joyful, carefree child had nothing to hide away. It is a real challenge to begin to embody feelings that you stuffed away because they were too hard to face at the time. You begin to embody them now.

More than uncomfortable, closer to terrifying, is the step beyond that which is personal to you. You are not some separate entity moving blithely through this stuff. Remember, only by embodying it do you "see" it. It is extremely difficult, nearly impossible sometimes, to become something you have never considered to be part of your identity, something you did not personally put here.

You have reached the end of your personal belongings, the things with which you identify. Your partition has ended. You enter the common space. It seems as if there is no sound. You can not even see the door leading back into your apartment. You have no light. You have to feel your way bit by bit. Put your hand on something, and it inhabits you while you dwell with it. In this moment, it is everything, your entire reality. Almost.

To continue into the depths of this place, you have to fully embody and then let go of everything you have ever called "me." Every concept. Every belief. Every memory. Every friend. Every hope. Let them come. Let them go. They lie behind you. Some would say that you are standing at the gates of hell.

However, if this is hell, it is our own hell. For just like everything that lies in your personal cellar, everything here has always been a part of you. It has always colored your awareness and shaped your reactions. It just happens to be me, too. It just happens to be everyone. It feels like hell, but I would say you are standing at the gates of heaven. You are on the brink of discovering what lies at the center of it all, who you are at the center.

None of this is to be taken lightly. No one can make you take this journey. There are real terrors here. Go at your own pace. Get any support or help you need. Although only you can take this journey, and in some sense you have to do it alone, you do not have to do it unsupported.

But once the journey is begun, it is important, maybe necessary, maybe unavoidable, eventually to go all the way to the center. And then to return to the surface. I have a feeling that those who have the courage to complete the journey are the ones who can really make a difference in our world.

Sitting contentedly in my armchair, a cup of hot tea in my hands, and you in the chair opposite, a question arises: Who is making this journey? Everything I have ever called "me" is back on the other side of the door, upstairs, in the light of day. I am a strong, confident person, not a weak and frightened child. Well, I used to be. Strong, and confident, and arrogant. Back when all my fears were stuffed in the cellar and "forgotten." But it was all there. What I have referred to as "me" throughout my life has only been the smallest part of the whole truth.

Who is taking this journey, if not the familiar "me " I have always known and loved, or hated? The "me" I have always identified with, that constantly maintained collection of self-images, was present at the beginning of the journey. When the territory was familiar, my self-image merely expanded. As I encountered minor fears I had hidden there, my self-image simply matured. It grew to include the fears and doubts and weaknesses. Nothing wrong with that. A worthwhile reason to journey into the nearer reaches of the closet.

Eventually, however, I encountered something that contradicted my self image. I encountered thoughts or feelings that bore no relation to the "me" I think I know. To become utterly weak, or completely afraid, or hatefully angry, I had to abandon my self-images and become something I believed myself incapable of being. At those times I barely felt that I existed. I feared for my very life. Who am I, if not the person I think I am?

Back at the surface, when self has reasserted itself, I know that all of this has always been me. At first encounter, it felt like "other," but then it felt like me, old and familiar. And I wonder now what was so frightening. But at the time, I had no such perspective. It was truly frightening, and felt like complete annihilation of my identity. And this is odd. To embrace something so terrifying, to feel that one is staring death in the face, and not recoiling, takes power and love that I can not claim to possess. It is strongest at a moment when my self-image, all that I know of "me," is weakest. Who is taking this journey?

The capacity to become this stuff, totally, unreservedly, but not to be overwhelmed by it; the strength not to reject this stuff as it was rejected in the past; the awareness to perceive what I have become; the knowledge that I need not fear my deepest fears, because, ultimately, they can not destroy me; all of this is beyond the "me" I have always known.

The "me" I have always known is constructed out of the rejection of some things and the accumulation of other things. Embracing the rejected, and letting go of the accumulated; who is doing that? Who is taking this journey?

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