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Wouldst thou know my meaning? Lie down in the Fire.
See and taste the flowing godhead through thy being.
--MECHTILD OF MAGDEBURG
Who is there to sing the music of my songs to men, express the joys of my passion ...?
To the extent that my hands grew accustomed to labor, that my eyes and ears learned to see and hear and my heart to understand what is in it, my soul too learned to skip upon the hills, to rise, to soar ... to embrace all the land round about, the world and all that is in it, and to see itself embraced in the arms of the whole universe.
--AARON DAVID GORDON
When I was a child of three or four I ran outside with my sister into the arms of a summer storm. Two naked little girls. The trees raked and swayed with the wind that stripped the green leaves and sent them tumbling over the grass. We danced in the wind. We flung out our arms and whirled with the electric leaves, and I knew that if I lifted my arms, my wings, I would rise up and soar like the hawks on the wind. I would sail across the skies, for nothing separated me from the elements. I was the wind, the blowing, bending trees, the green wild grass. I was the storm, the earth, the acorns that bruised my tiny bare feet. I was my sister and my own naked little body leaping and turning round and round in the summer storm.
Then my mother called us indoors. I don't remember anything else, but probably she toweled us dry while we pranced laughing around the kitchen, and then she gave us some dinner and read us to sleep.
Connectedness. All my life I have been trying to return to that innocent state of the child of three. . .
I had two children and was living in New York, writing articles. I published a bestselling book. I loved my family and garden and friends, was having a wonderful time, when suddenly, in 1973, we were moved back to Washington, D.C.
And all the while I did not know that I was "rowing toward God," as the poet Anne Sexton put it.
I am rowing, I am rowing though the oarlocks stick and are rusty and the sea blinks and rolls like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back and I know that that island will not be perfect,
but there will be a door and I will open it....1
Once, a few years earlier, I'd had a kind of vision. I was working at my desk. I sat at my rickety manual typewriter, utterly absorbed in the article I was writing. At a certain moment I lifted my eyes from the page, glanced out the window at a maple tree--and for an instant I became the tree. No separation. I was the bark, the wood, the fleshy summer leaves. Time stopped.
Satori, came the ponderous thought, and with that word, arriving like an endless, slow, wavelike movement of my mind, with the naming of the moment, everything fragmented again back into its different parts--myself, the typewriter, the tree now safely separated from me by the windowpane.
Satori, the thought repeated. But I was back in my isolated body. That's how holy people see, I marveled, though I had only the dimmest idea of the meaning of the word I'd used, or of its sister word, nirvana.
The experience lasted hardly a second. But I have never forgotten that restful state of perfect peace. Time stopped, all feeling, analysis, all consciousness of self, all sense of being "I."
I knew that something precious had been given me. I didn't know it was a state that you could cultivate, or that it had anything to do with this word called "God."
I did not want to return to Washington. I loved New York, our life, our friends. For four years I had opposed my husband's wish to move, until one day a knowledge fell across my skin, like the shudder of a horse's skin when brushing off a fly: the move was decreed, inevitable. I remember I was walking from one room to another when this understanding hit. I stopped dead in my tracks. Later I came to trust these intuitions, but at the time the strength of this "knowing" frightened me. It was one of the first times I recognized an inner, silent voice and knew I was powerless to fight it.
Moreover, the move made sense. My father in Baltimore had had a stroke, my family needed me, and Washington was less expensive to live in, a more benevolent climate for children than New York. Finally, my journalist husband wanted with all his heart to be at the nerve center of politics, covering a particular beat, and of course I wanted his happiness.
Yet something in me died.
I missed my friends, my work, my sense of place. Every morning the sun came up, a ball of fire flinging itself out of the tangle of tree limbs and up into the sky. I watched, surprised that it could dawn each day when my heart felt so heavy.
I cried. I felt abandoned.
Each morning, out of sheer willpower, I got out of bed to care for my house and children or try--without heart--to write. One morning, after the children had left for school, I found the opening lines of Dante's Inferno running through my mind. I had studied the poem in college. I went to the bookcase, pulled down my dog-eared copy, and read aloud to the empty room.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi retrovai per una selva oscura chè la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood for the straight path had been lost.
The words struck me to the core.
Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte che nel pensier rinova la poura!
Ah, how to describe how hard it was,
this savage bitter wilderness,
even to think of which strikes fear in me again!
I fell to my knees, the tears streaming down my cheeks. "Help me, help me, help!"
The fit passed. After a few moments I dried my tears and rose to my feet and went on about my day. It did not occur to me that my cry constituted a prayer or that my prayer had instantly been answered--my pain washed mercifully away--for this was long before I noticed such events. I only knew my deplorable weakness had passed. I'd regained control. But in that moment of surrender I shifted from agnostic--not knowing--to some flimsy acceptance that something spiritual existed beyond myself. It was not done, however, without a quiver of shame at having failed once more, this time the test of self-reliance. I respected my husband all the more, for he had no trouble with his disbelief.
They say that when the student is ready the teacher appears. They say that it is not the soul that struggles first toward God, but this Universe of Love which is fishing for us. God puts the longing in our hearts so that we will leap upstream, like a spawning salmon that throws itself against the river current, leaping up waterfalls in its passionate urge to reach the source, its birthplace, spawning ground, and death.
Just before leaving New York I had met, by the most striking accident, the first American woman to study in a Buddhist wat, or monastery, in Thailand. (Who was it who said coincidence is God's way of performing a miracle anonymously?) She taught me how to meditate, using the vipassana method of Theravada Buddhism--the Southern school, as practiced in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
I loved it. For the next three years I practiced this form of meditation for twenty or thirty minutes every day. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, changes occurred. Later I would meet a Hindu guru (more about that later) who gave me a mantra (somewhat easier perhaps) and afterward I practiced that.
We should digress at this point to talk a little about meditation, though I'd suggest that anyone who knows these basics should skip ahead. There are many saints and holy masters, more learned than I, and they have written so gracefully about God and about meditation, which is the path to the spiritual dimension, that to read their works is to touch a point of peace. Go to these. There are Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama or Sogyal Rinpoche or the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. There are the Japanese Zen masters, like Shunryu Suzuki, and the Americans, such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, or, in the Christian tradition, Thomas Merton and Father Thomas Keating. There are the medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich or Mechtild of Magdeburg, or, in Spain, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa of Avila. There are hundreds of wiser and more learned works than mine. But if you are reading about transcendent moments for the first time and know nothing of meditation, then perhaps this section may be of use.
Today, Christian meditation is having a rebirth; but in the 1970s, when I was beginning my search, that art had been lost since medieval times. Certainly it was not taught to ordinary people. In the tradition of seekers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Aldous Huxley, I took a long journey through Buddhism, then Hinduism, before returning with new insights to my Christian roots. Therefore I describe the Eastern methods of meditation, with their long, unbroken history. In an appendix you will find a Christian path toward meditation; but keep in mind that all types of meditation are similar and all lead to the same golden center, for at the mystical level all religions have more in common than they differ, and all derive from the same source and long for the same goal.
Something happens in meditation, something so subtle and elegant that the great teachers and Zen masters and rabbis, the true Masters, are too clever to try to describe it. Was it this that Christ was teaching to his twelve?
Plato called the mystery of meditation theoria. Early Christians called it contemplatio.
Once the Buddha was asked, "Is there God?"
"I will not tell you," he answered. "But, if you wish, I can show you how to find out for yourself." Then he taught the gift of meditation.
The Buddha, the Compassionate One, understood how easily we become dependent on others, asking them to do the work for us. Unlike Christ, he refused to heal the sick.
"I will not make you well," he would say to the leper, the blind man, "but I can show you how to heal yourself." Then he would teach the seeker how to meditate.
Some learned. Others went away irritated that the Compassionate One would not hand them healing or wisdom or love the easy way.
Sages tell us that meditation confers three gifts. First, it brings deep peace and tranquility of mind. Second, it brings clear intuition, wisdom, and insight. Third, if it is pursued with constancy and devotion, it leads to the direct experience of God. Some people claim meditation does no more than transport us to our own interior and highest self, and others that it opens a doorway through which the Beloved comes. All we know is the love and power it confers.
There are various ways to meditate. Each system is designed to break sense-contact with the outer world and especially to stop the shrieking voices in our heads, the constant, taunting inner chatter. Whatever the system in whatever religion, meditation is always done by total concentration on one repetitive act. Perhaps you place your attention on your nostrils, watching your breath pass in and out, each breath as unique as a snowflake. Or perhaps you repeat a mantra, of which the best known is the Tibetan Buddhist Om mani padme hum, the mantra of compassion. Or the mantra is a Christian prayer. Saying the rosary becomes a meditation, or repeating over and over with absolute attention the Pilgrims' Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Weeding the garden may become a meditation, or knitting, cooking, eating, walking, painting--doing whatever you are doing, so long as you do it alertly, with absolute attention, watching each movement of your hands or feet or breath.
Ram Dass tells how once he was giving a talk about his experiences in India. An old lady in the first row kept nodding and smiling in assent, the wooden cherries on her hat bobbing up and down. His vanity was pricked. How did she know about the esoteric things he'd spent years studying? At the end of the lecture, she went up to him.
"I enjoyed your talk."
"How do you know so much about meditation?" he asked.
"Oh," she confided, "I crochet."
I am told that in Thailand and Burma every adult man is encouraged to spend six or eight months in meditation at some time in his life. He is not considered educated without this entry into the spiritual journey, for this is the path by which you discover who you are.
From the beginning I loved meditating. Even my family found it helped my moods. Once my husband said to me, "You're out of sorts. Why don't you go upstairs and meditate. I'll feed the children."
But listen: The meditation I do is nothing compared to the practice of those who are truly serious.
The Dalai Lama meditates for four hours a day, and he is only just beginning, he told me, to sense accomplishment, "like a seed just starting to sprout...."2
The Buddha spent two hours a day practicing one particular Forgiveness exercise--two hours a day, sending forgiveness to the world. Mother Teresa insists that her Missionaries of Charity carve out time every day for meditation, and she says that she herself could not do her draining and difficult work without this sweet and daily communion with God. For hours at a time, continuously, a Sufi master, practicing the Muslim mystical tradition, repeats the dhikr, the remembrance of God: La ilaha ill-Allah, he silently cries. "There is no God but God, al-Lah"--until slowly the words seep into his soul, like running water, excluding all other thoughts. His heartbeat slows. So quiet does the Sufi master become that they say he can repeat twenty-one dhikr on one long breath.
Years after I first learned to meditate, I spent several weeks at a Buddhist retreat in Massachusetts. There you go into silence. You do not speak. You avoid all eye contact. Certain orders of Christian monks maintain similar rules. And after being there for a time, I understood why. It's because you become so open, so sensitive, your antennae stretch so far, that if your eyes were to meet those of another person--man or woman--you would instantly fall in love!
We rose at four-thirty in the morning and meditated, alternately sitting or walking, until ten at night. Never was I so happy! By the end of two weeks, I was meditating twenty-two out of twenty-four hours a day, utterly absorbed and joyous in the discipline.
Many books describe how to meditate. You sit quietly with your back straight, either on the floor or in a chair. You close your eyes, scan your body, and relax, then set your attention on your nostrils and watch your breath pass in and out through this gateway, the portal to your life. At each inhalation, you take note: In, you say silently to yourself; on the exhalation, you say out.
The Tibetan monk Sogyal Rinpoche advises that you let your mouth drop slightly open, as if saying "Ahhh." He teaches that rather than express "in ... out," you simply watch.
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, who teaches crowds of disciples at Plum Village in France, counsels that you repeat an entire sentence to yourself.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.3
Now your thoughts leap like wild horses on a lead, crashing through the underbrush in fear and untamed rage. Thinking, you interrupt, naming the concept rather than being swept away by the horses of thought. Then quietly you return to your breath: In ... out ...
For the breath is the only true, factual, indisputable reality we know. Everything else is happening within our minds, planning, remembering, daydreaming, teaching, criticizing, judging; all things are reflections or projections of our minds.
In addition to noticing when you are thinking, you begin to name emotions--mind-states, as the Buddhists call them: anger, fear, jealousy, boredom, irritation, happiness, desire, longing, rapture, joy. They rise up, move like clouds across the limitless, blank, empty sky of your being, and pass away. You watch and return to your breathing. In ... out ...
It requires attention. Saint Teresa of Avila called this practice mental prayer and deplored her leaping thoughts. "This intellect is so wild," she wrote in her Life, "that it doesn't seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down."4
Finally you grow so quiet that you differentiate the varying physical sensations in your body: a pain in your knee, a twinge in the neck, an itch or throbbing, a pulsing or tingling; and slowly, as you do this day by day, you become so still that soon you hear your own heartbeat, sense the blood pulsing through your veins.
In ...out ...
You have visions. In the early days, violent, psychedelic thunderstorms assailed me with swirling colors--red, black, purple, green--or else sequential waves of light moved in toward me or flowed outward in waves that reached to the farthest stars. These would be followed by periods of deep calm, the quiet of a mirror-sea on a windless summer day. Then I watched my thoughts lift in a gentle swell and imperceptibly subside.
One of the common early phenomena is the "eye of God." It appears as a luminous bright disk, a golden "eye" with its black pupil watching you. It is similar to the blinding spot that assails you when you step from a brilliant white snowfield into a dark room. In meditation, however, you cannot attribute this effect to the adjustment of the retina, for you are only sitting, eyes closed. What is it?
In ... out ... and soon the image of an eye fades, to be replaced by the sound of a birdsong or a numbness in your foot, or by the desire for a cup of tea; still you watch attentively, attaching no importance to any of these visions or events, sensations or ideas.
Later still, you grow so quiet that your body disappears. Then you find that you are the mind, and this mind that you are watching is a serene, deep, beautiful, blank sky, an empty space, elegant in its purity. It is what the Tibetans call rigpa, the beginning of the understanding of the richness of Emptiness. Across it slowly floats the cloud of a thought, which vanishes, and after a while there appears another cloud--an emotion perhaps, a memory, or else the high ping of the radiator--a sound which hits your ears and enters your body in observable waves ... and these thoughts too, rise up, diminish, and disappear.
Who is the observing "I"?
Once, when I was just beginning, I saw to my horror a pack of small, wild, sharp-toothed, snarling, furry animals come pouring from my navel--badgers and wolverines--out into the air. I watched appalled as they spewed out of me, snapping and clawing the air. (In ... out ...) But when the meditation ended, I walked with a lighter step.
What had happened? I had no one to ask, and I think if I'd had a teacher, I would have been ashamed to admit my vision. I held my secret, vicious violence to myself.
Almost ten years later I read The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In one scene Our Lord is a young novice meditating at an Essene monastery, when suddenly two writhing black snakes appear outside the walls, whipping their tails. Hissing, they slither into the desert, the snakes of ancient sins.
I suspect that Kazantzakis knew what he was talking about. Born in Crete, he ricocheted between his spiritual longings and passionate, politically revolutionary ideals. He served as minister of education in Greece; worked for UNESCO; translated Dante, Homer, Bergson, Darwin, William James, Nietzsche, and other writers into modern Greek, and still found time to write plays, poetry, essays, and novels, including Zorba the Greek. As a young man he withdrew for a time to Mount Athos (where no female of any kind including hens and cows has set foot for ten centuries) and there he meditated with the monks so long that he developed what's called the meditator's rash. This is a real phenomenon. Apparently it heralds the energy shifts that consume one's body as vibrations rise--burning karma, as the Hindus call it. When I read Kazantzakis's description of those two black writhing snakes, I recalled my own disturbing vision and wondered if he was writing of what he himself had seen on Mount Athos, the physical manifestation of the cleansing of a soul.
For six years, then, I meditated, using either the Buddhist breathing meditation just described, or the mantra given later by my guru. In this second form of meditation, you concentrate on the sound of one of the names of God. It is not, however, the meaning of the word that assists the awakening, but rather the vibration, the frequency, resonating with your soul. (This is different from the Christian lectio, a discipline in which you take a Scriptural verse and read it over and over, concentrating, until its deepest meaning seeps into your heart.)
Studies of meditation show that precise changes occur in the meditator's brain waves and hypothalamus, as well as in the nervous, metabolic, and acupuncture meridian systems. I knew nothing of these studies, but I found my sharp mood-swings flattening out into a quiet steadiness. And periodically I would experience a fleeting moment of transcendence, a light-encapsulated epiphany, in which the world would be flooded with light, and I, too, momentarily. These came as little breakthroughs like the static an astrophysicist might hear when listening to the silence of space--a brief splutter of sound and gone. A blessing of light, and then darkness.
Looking back, I can see now that all this time that I was meditating, my prayers were also shifting, but so gradually, so imperceptibly I didn't notice at first. I wanted God.
"I want to understand," I prayed fervently, as indeed I had prayed since I was twenty. Understand what? I didn't know: all of it! Now I remembered those moments as a child, isolated flashes of memory, like a shaft of sunlight in the forest, when everything seemed pure. I remembered that instant of satori when, as a young married woman, I'd been typing my article and melted into the tree. I wanted that.
1. Anne Sexton, "Rowing," from The Awful Rowing Toward God in The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
2. His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV, interview with author, 13 February 1996.
3. Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1991; 1992), 10.
4. Teresa of Avila, Life, as quoted in Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace