People meditate these days for all sorts of reasons. I started it years ago to help keep my blood pressure low, but since then have discovered all sorts of “extra benefits.”
Chief among them seems to be the ability to keep my head in those times and places when I’m accustomed to losing it. Running a close second are an increased overall feeling of equanimity, plus a sense of greater perspective in life.
One of the questions I get most often from people who knew me before and after I started meditating is, “doesn’t meditation make you apathetic, especially to things like social injustice?”
In my case, I think time, the maturation of the frontal cortex, plus the calcium channel blocker I take have all had some effect on this. 🙂 However, I also wonder if such questions don’t also come from the same place that wonders if eastern religions — Buddhism in particular — don’t deliberately cultivate some state of indifference or affective numbness.
Thinking about this recently, I realized my life has put me in touch with several ways of understanding what it is that people like me are after when we meditate, work, and live, which is to say, play.
The first of these comes from my professional training many years ago, when I came cross Robert Fliess’ indispensable article for psychoanalytic clinicians “The Metapsychology of the Analyst.” In it, he argues against a view of analytic abstinence and neutrality as cold indifference to the patient. Instead, he suggests the analyst is deeply engaged with the patient, on an emotional level, but in a special way.
According to Freud, we’re made up of id, ego, and superego (think Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo, and Ranger respectively). What the good analyst does, according to Fliess, is imagine herself at the vertex of a pyramid which has the patient’s id, ego, and superego at the base.
This doesn’t mean the analyst doesn’t care, or pretends not to. It just means he tries to play fair, giving as much attention and air time to the different parts of a suffering person (conscious as well as otherwise) as possible. Non-classical types can easily substitute Fairbairn’s objects, Kohut’s bipolar self, or any old conflict for Freud’s structures.
Of course, the height (or depth) of the pyramid can vary according to the tastes and temperament of the analyst. The important thing to note is that the analyst refrains from gratifying the patient’s wishes not to be mean, cold, or just like her own analyst, but in the service of greater and better emotional contact with the patient. I like to call this empathy.
So to summarize my take on Fliess, abstinence serves neutrality, which allows the analyst to be in optimal contact with as much of his patient as possible. This, of course, is not cold detachment or indifference (ironic or otherwise). It is, instead, effective analytic relating.
The other part comes from some writings I came across in the course of my own spiritual wanderings, which began in Roman Catholicism and currently have me somewhere in that branch of Hindiusm called Advaita or nondualism. One of the folks I keep coming back to, over and over again, is Meister Eckhart.
Eckhart is a mystic, which for me means he has and cultivates a deeply felt connection to a universe experienced as mystery (as opposed to mere problem). For the mystic, this connection can be personal or transpersonal; for Eckhart I think it was both.
The best ideas, from my standpoint, are so much more than simple thoughts or notions, and they transcend time, place, and culture so much that anyone can benefit from them (even non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-theists like me). Eckhart had at least one of these, which in the original German is called Gelassenheit. In English, it’s most often rendered as “releasement.”
Like Fliess, Eckhart was concerned with trying to get others in the proper or best alignment with the things they’re most concerned about. For Fliess, this was the analytic patient. For Eckhart, it’s God.
For me, Gelassenheit is Eckhart’s way of suggesting we “let go” of created things in order to make room for God. Sounds easy until you think of what’s “created” under this definition — everything except God!
My reading of Eckhart has him saying we all too often hang on to thoughts, feelings, people, memories and events, or words (like “God”) in such a rigid and static way that we think we know what they mean, they become stale and lifeless to us, or they hold way too much power over us. In short, our relationship to these things (not these things in and of themselves!) needs changing, and this is accomplished through meditation and prayer.
The most provocative of these is the prayer to God to be rid of God:
So I say that one should be so poor [in spirit, that is, in will] that he should not be or have any place in which God could work. When one clings to place, he clings to distinction. Therefore I pray God that he may make me free of “God,” for my real being is above God if we take “God” to be the beginning of created things.
What I think Eckhart is inviting us to do be just skeptical enough about experience to see it as our experience. This, in turn, allows us to better take in the perspective of others, presumably including the divine one as well. In eastern terms, Eckhart seems to be saying just relax your iron grip on the things you love most and they’ll be returned to you a thousandfold.
It should come as no surprise that geometry has long since been used as a metaphor for right living. In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius comes right out and says that perturbatio — the Latin term for the suffering that comes from internal turmoil, often mistranslated as “passion” — is like traveling around the circumference of a circle. Peace of mind, then, comes from inhabiting the motionless hub or center.
For philosophers, understanding is what happens at the hub, while reason and passion is what happens on the periphery.
For Boethius, that’s also where God lives. Presumably, this is the perspective outside the fields of space and time, where divine foreknowledge doesn’t interfere with the workings of free will any more than the center of a circle interferes with the movement of the radius or circumference.
In fact, my reading of Boethius suggests God and creation mutually enable one another to exist.
So what does all this have to do with meditation? Well, the effective meditator (or prayer, or worker, or liver of live, which is to say, player) doesn’t do what she does to escape life, but to embrace and fulfill it, on its own terms, by going straight to the center.
Since I can remember, movies and bookstores have been my cathedrals. Here’s an example from a recent movie to illustrate what I mean.
When we meditate, pray, work, play, or do anything in the attempt to escape the sufferings (or joys) of our life, we either don’t get very far (best outcome), hurt ourselves in the process (worse), or delude ourselves completely (worst).
So what do we do?
Check out the ending of one of my favorites, Lost in Space. Pay special attention to what William Hurt suggests the pilot do in order to survive (as well as escape) a rapidly disintegrating planet.
The answer: go down (“go under“), into the source of the trouble, where and when your planet is breaking up all around you.
Fly into the center. Hell, if you like. This is what the meditator does, and what’s often counterintuitive in times of personal crisis or tragedy. You reach out, touch, and embrace your thoughts, memories, joys, pains, or indifferences, not run away from them (tempting as it might be sometimes).
At the center, there’s just enough gravity to protect you from the explosion (of a rapidly collapsing self or identity) as well as catapult you on your journey.
In psychoanalytic terms, this means allowing yourself close enough to your customer(‘s narrative) to catalyze a new, richer phase of the work.
In spiritual terms, this means clearing your yard so that God or transcendence can happen, however your tradition understands either term.
In psychological terms, it’s how you blur or otherwise suspend the subject / object split enough to let go of self-consciousness, get on the dance floor, and flow.
As always, expect revisions, enjoy, and feel free to pass along comments and suggestions.