The Living Flame of Love: Meditations on Meditation

You are not the self you know.


In 1986 I traveled to Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war. A visit to two teenage victims of a Contra land mine turned into what I described at the time as an encounter with God. Joy, wonder and love erupted in the midst of horrible suffering. I caught a glimpse of the possibility of transforming human experience not through manipulation of the outside world but through a personal shift involving the abandonment of the barriers we use to shield ourselves from Life.

It was only a glimpse. Upon returning to my life in Vermont I watched as the walls formed around me once again. I have tried since then, perhaps a little too zealously at times, to find a way to translate that glimpse into a daily reality.

It has not been easy, and it has been too self-conscious. The joy I felt in that hospital room in Leon, Nicaragua, came as a complete surprise, unsought, yet recognized and embraced.

I was first taught the practice of meditation in 1974. When I was asked by my sister to introduce her to meditation, I discovered a vehicle for describing what I learned in that hospital room and in the places, inner and outer, where that encounter has propelled me.



You believe you possess
something uniquely precious
to be defended at all cost.
You believe you need
to be better than
what you are.

Dear Heart, you are beautiful.
Your life is indeed precious, but
it is not a thing
to be possessed.

There is no "breath",
only the taking in and
the letting go
of air.

there is no "me",
no thing to be protected
or perfected,

Only the living,
the growing and decaying,
the joining and the separating,
the mystery of creation.




I can not teach you how to meditate. I suspect that meditation can not be taught. Instead I want to share some of my thoughts, reflecting my experience and my personality. Some of what I offer may be applicable to you. It is for you to discover what fits and what does not. If, after hearing from me, you still want meditation to be a part of your life, I have no doubt that meditation will find you.

There are many programs and methods that propose to teach meditation. Often the stated goal is relaxation and concentration, better work performance, higher grades, or a better marriage. It is my experience that all of these expectations get in the way of meditation. Instead of filling you up with expectations, perhaps I can point you in the direction of what meditation is for me. Then you may recognize times in your life of natural meditation and you may gently nurture these times until they develop into a rhythm in your daily life.

Meditation is about the way we live. You may chant a mantra for twenty minutes twice a day for the rest of your life and never know what meditation is. You may be able to sit for hours but know nothing about your place in the world. Or you may know nothing about TM or Zen or Mindfulness and be a meditative person to your core. Meditation, as I understand it, is not only about sitting quietly; it is about living fully.

Meditation is not a very accurate word for what I am describing. The word means "to think about." Reflecting on a scriptural verse, trying to develop some meaning, might rightly be called meditation, but that is not what I am talking about. Perhaps by the end of these reflections it will be clearer what I do mean, and perhaps a new word will emerge that is more fully descriptive of what I mean by meditation.


A man labors his whole life as a grave digger. He moans and complains about the terrible toil of life. He retires, broken and weary and bitter. A friend says, "Why did you spend your whole life digging graves with a teaspoon when you could have used a shovel?"


Unimpeded Movement

Often the stated goal of meditation is a quiet mind. What is a quiet mind? The mind is quiet when asleep, unless it is dreaming, but is there a quietness that is awake? Any repetitious activity slows the mind down so that it is not quite asleep, not quite awake. Repeating a mantra can bring you to this dullness. Is this a quiet mind?

My experience is that there is a quietness of mind that is extraordinarily active and alert. Imagine a mountain stream without the rocks, without any impediment. It is unimpeded movement. The quiet comes not from ceasing to move but from removing the obstacles that create noise, that resist movement. It is not movement that makes noise; it is resistance. It is not the active mind that chatters with thought, but the blocked mind, just as the stones make the brook chatter. Of course an inactive mind is also quiet, so it is easy to be fooled.

Imagine that we are driving down the road, a very straight road. I am at the wheel and you are in the passenger seat with your eyes closed. You cannot really tell that we are moving. The most obvious of facts, that you are hurtling along at sixty miles per hour, is not felt by you. Do you feel the turning of the Earth, or the expansion of the universe? Hit a bump, though, and you will know you are moving. Run into a rock and you will really know what movement is! In the same way, the unimpeded, active mind is absolutely silent. The presence of the mind's activity only becomes known when there are obstacles in its path. When you run into the rock of frustration, then you know that you are not standing still. Obstacles are what make movement tangible to us.

The quiet mind is unimpeded movement. The obstacles, the frustrations, the thoughts, the memories are the points where the movement makes itself known. So welcome the obstacles. After all, what is a stream without the rocks and banks? Of course, too many obstacles block the movement completely, and perhaps that is the situation we are in when we start looking for a way to unblock, when we turn to meditation. However, if you are still living and breathing there is still some movement in you, and so you can begin to explore your obstacles. You may feel stuck, but the fact is that you are feeling. You may see nothing but darkness, but the fact remains that you are seeing. You may run up against obstacle after obstacle, but the fact remains that you, like the river, are running. This is the beginning of meditation.


You are sitting and waiting for a bus to take you to a job you don't like, and it doesn't come and doesn't come and you are going to be late and you get angry and frustrated and tense. Suddenly you realize it is Sunday. The buses don't run, and you don't have to go to work.



Another word often used instead of meditation is contemplation. This already is an improvement over "meditation."

The word "contemplation" comes from a Latin root that means "to observe carefully." So one could think of a contemplative as one who remains at rest long enough to observe herself and the world around her.

The concept is a little passive, but it accentuates the fact that most of us rush around without giving a moment to seeing, or deeply experiencing, or even resting! Idleness is despised.

But stillness, even idleness, sustains us. When I was a monk-in-training people flocked to the monastery with insatiable curiosity about the inner lives of the monks. Why were they not insatiably curious about their own inner lives? Our own inner lives are a mess, that's why. Paying attention to our inner lives is tedious, and at times terrifying. It is much easier to romanticize the inner life of monks than to remain still and face one's own reality.

True contemplation is the most subversive of activities. The contemplative is the most radical of revolutionaries, and the most courageous of heroes. She dares to face the most terrifying demons: her own. He challenges the dominant social and economic order simply by ceasing all activity that is not essential to Life. They demonstrate the lie that we need all the stuff we are incessantly commanded to buy. They remind us of our true nature, and move us to examine and reorder our lives. And they accomplish this without doing anything aside from being what they are.

I have learned this lesson most clearly from what I regard to be some of the truest contemplatives on the Earth, the great whales. The fins and the blues, the rights and the humpbacks. I have no idea what the whales' inner lives are like. We don't even know that much about their external lives. But the effect of their very existence is like that of the contemplative.

Their silence and stillness remind us of our noisiness, our hectic scrambling for more stuff and more approval. Their untroubled breathing reminds us of the suffocating tightness in our chests. They call us to lay hold of what really matters, that which is essential to abundant life, and to let go of all that is superfluous. Thus they transform our lives and overturn the world order.

It is really no wonder that we seek out the contemplative, and endlessly resist following her example.


Rise and dive
Rise and dive
The whale of the deep
Approaches the surface
And returns home.

Opening into Closing

"But how do I meditate?" you might be asking. The method is not really important. You are discovering how to be unconditionally open, to yourself, to others, to your thoughts and feelings and reactions, to all that you encounter. A method can be a form of closing even at its best. It will become quite a prison if it is made all-important. It is a closing because it says, "maybe if I focus on this other thing, the thoughts and feelings I don't like will go away." It is closing to the thoughts and feelings, calling them bad, resisting them, wanting to be in some other state than the one that you are in.

"But," you object, "I am under a lot of stress. My body is exhausted, my mind doesn't know which way to turn. I am confused and tired. This stress is going to kill me if I don't do something!"

And I respond, "You are now beginning to meditate." You have wholeheartedly, passionately acknowledged the fact that at this moment you are in a chaotic state that is bad for you. It's a subtle difference, but an important difference. Before, you were feeling stress but were focussing on getting away. Now that you have opened up to your stress (if you can stay there and not try to escape), your openness starts to replace your stress. This openness can not be generated by being pursued as a goal. To desire openness is to be caught in desire, but open into your anxiety or distress and your openness will leap in and spread like a fire in dry grass.

This requires some careful scrutiny, because the accepted road is to reject what is seen as bad and pursue what is seen as good. Pursue compassion. Cultivate quietness. Seek to be relaxed. Choose happiness. Aim for the stars. Think positive.

All I can say is that it is my experience that in meditation the only way out is through. To pursue a relaxed feeling is a form of stress, the stress of pursuit. To surrender to the fact of your stress is to relax. More extremely, if you are encountering some strong emotion like hate in yourself, to try to feel compassionate instead is a form of hate. You are hating your hate, perpetuating it. To embrace your hate, to let yourself see it and accept it, is a very beautiful form of compassion. You are ending the cycle.

There are methods that incorporate these ideas. A focus (a mantra, the breath) is used as a starting point from which attention moves when something of importance comes along. The focus of attention is not forced, but allowed to move as it does. The focus is the initiation of the unfolding process. Remember, though, that any method, including insisting on no method, anything that sets up an expectation, is a closing. Any method can become a source of dullness, like the peace march I witnessed that was so focussed on the march that they trampled all the blooming tulips. Therefore, start with wherever or whatever you are right now, and find out for yourself what meditation really is.

Opening into Closing, II

I feel I need to clarify what I mean by "embracing your hate." There is so much hate and violence in us and around us. This is so easily misunderstood.

I am talking about what happens when you are allowing thoughts and feelings to arise spontaneously, not blocking anything that arises. I am talking about what happens when some strong feeling arises, some feeling that is normally considered "wrong" or "dangerous." What if the feeling arises, with all sorts of images and energy moving through your body, a feeling of extreme anger toward someone, a very violent feeling?

Will you marshal your strength and say to yourself, "I must not feel such things," and force those feelings back into the depths whence they came? They will return, in ways too subtle for you to notice.

Will you encourage that energy? Will you cheer it on, and get all wrapped up in it, and say to yourself. "I have a right to be angry. I should get angry more often. It would do me good." You will get angry more often. It will not do you or anyone any good.

Or will you neither encourage it nor contain it, but let it pass? Will you make of your body and mind a chimney up which this hot smoke may rise and dissipate? Will you simply let it be what it is, and let it go? If you block it, you are perpetuating it. If you claim it as your own, you are perpetuating it. If you do neither of these, but take a good, clear look at it, you will see right through it to the frightened person who used those feelings as a defense; and you will be moved with compassion for that frightened, angry person. This is what I mean by embracing your anger.

When this happens to you, see how subtly denial works. Even if you approach a strong "negative" feeling with the thought, "I must love this," you may be placing an obstruction in its path that will drive it back down. You may really be saying "I must get rid of this." You see, actually loving does not spring from your self. Actually loving rarely expresses itself in thoughts. Love knows how to surround hate in a way that neither frightens it back into the depths (for hate is always timid), nor adds to its force (how can love add to hate?). But this love arises of its own accord, not at the direction of your will.

So love your hate and anger and pain and guilt. Love what you despise. All of these are wanting nothing else. If love is what they find, they will gladly dispel on their own.


You are not
The self you know.

Look at your self.
See that it is so.

The self you know
Is smoke.

You are
The living flame of love.


What Do You Expect?

If we did not expect meditation to do something for us, why would we begin? I began meditation hoping to find God. Meaning what? I expected to be lifted out of my suffering and brought face to face with a bright, shining presence that would cleanse me of all my fears and doubts and troubles.

When that did not happen, I became angry and confused. Why was God ignoring me? Am I really that unworthy?

I suffered all the more, because of my own expectations of what I would find. I did not take up meditation to be brought face to face with my own anger, vulnerability, weakness, and inevitable death. I wanted to be free of all that! But that is what I found. That is what presented itself. Who would want such a thing? Who can stand to see themselves in such a light? Where is God, The Shining Light of Truth?

And then I got it. The light of truth is shining through me on my own weakness, my anger, my dying. The Comforter is standing in the presence of the suffering. Strength is admitting weakness. Life is admitting the inevitability and necessity of dying. I am that which I am seeking.

God is here, not to be experienced as Other, but to be lived as you. Not to be found as an external Cosmic Comforter, but as a vital, loving presence at the core of your own being, present, through you, to everything at all times. You are the very Love you seek.


Seek and ye shall find.

But not necessarily

What you expect.


Listen Deeply

I sat at the crest of a waterfall in the Lye Brook Wilderness of the Green Mountain National Forest. The cascading waters of spring rushed before me. I closed my eyes as I listened to the sound of splashing water. After some time, maybe fifteen minutes, I heard a roar like thunder or a jet engine. I opened my eyes and looked up, but there was nothing in the sky. It was the waterfall. I closed my eyes again and realized that the rock I was sitting on was vibrating. I listened now to the two sounds, the splashing and the roaring, and I felt my body trembling with the deep vibration of the rock.

After some time more I thought I heard voices. I opened my eyes again, expecting to see hikers coming down the brook. No one. It was the waterfall. I closed my eyes and listened to the splashing and the roaring and the voices I could not understand. I listened for a long time, although without much sense of the passage of time.

Meditation is about listening deeply, not just with your ears, but with your whole being, to whatever you meet, and most especially to those things you think you already know completely, and those you fear or despise.



Burning Truth

When a fire is being set under difficult circumstances, the small beginnings of a flame must be gently encouraged. A breath too strong will blow it out. A column of air too broad will not give it the oxygen it needs. A focused, gentle column of air breathes life into the flame. Soon the force of rising heat draws in the needed oxygen. Your effort is no longer necessary.

You are such a flame. With care and concentration, with a focusing of attention like the breath that brings life to the flame, you will encourage the growth of your own truth.

I started these reflections looking for a new word to use instead of meditation. I have found it: candescence, which literally means "beginning to burn brightly." The Latin verb candescere is the root for the English words incandescent, which means "containing a bright glow," and the word candle. It is also the root of the English words candid and candor. Candescence is the uncovering of your light and the revealing of your truth.

The Latin ending esce implies the onset of something, the process of beginning. To be candescent is to be always beginning, never finally arriving, always inquiring, exploring, testing limits, continuing to begin to burn. Your light is not static and neither is your truth.

It is not so much that there is this flame to be discovered. The discovery and expression of who you are right now is the burning of the flame. The exploring, the entering, the feeling, the expressing are all the burning of this flame. You are the burning of this flame.

This living flame burns at the core of all that is, with all the creative and destructive power that the image of fire carries. Perhaps out of fear of the destructive aspect, we have learned to bury the power within each of us. As we begin to reveal our truth to ourselves and then to others, we uncover the spark of life. We candesce. We begin to burn with a most contagious light.


Back To Top

Home | Contact | Privacy Policy