Last weekend, after a series of false starts and much procrastination, I found my way back to meditation. I'd been putting it off for a while but I found a book about meditation in a charity shop that looked as if it might be useful. It looked clearly written, clearly explained. It started with the minimum of explanation before ploughing straight into the practical. A series of one hundred exercises, one for each day unless you choose to repeat days or if you don't meditate on a day. They start very simply and slowly expand.
The first thirty days are spent on technique, explaining through the exercises some different ways to meditate. You can then choose which seems to suit your own temperament best. I like that. Too many meditation books give you one way to meditate even though everyone is different and what helps one person may hinder another. Given that there are hundreds of ways to meditate it seems problematic to limit a person to one or two of them. The remaining 70 days expand upon and deepen the meditation with a thought to sit with as you meditate and as you go through the day, with some explanatory text. And between each ten days exercises there are several pages of text to help. Tomorrow is day ten, after which comes advice on 'Overcoming Obstacles'. For most of us those obstacles arise from within rather than from outside. I'm sure I will write more about this book and give the title before long.
Yesterday was day eight. The bulk of the exercise for the day was a mantra. Some mantras are one word. This was four phrases repeated across two breaths:
Breathing in, my body fills with light
Breathing out, I find myself at peace
Breathing in, my mind fills with joy
Breathing out, I realize that I am the joy
Of course the words "breathing in and out" don't need to be said. Simple enough. I had the time yesterday so was able to enjoy three sessions with this mantra of fifteen to twenty minutes each.
There have been "good" and "bad" days so far in which I could focus and concentrate and just be with the mantra or the breathing to a greater or lesser extent. It's been easier than expected so far and I feel that enough has changed in me and I've been set free from enough of what has held me back - and enough of what I've allowed to hold me back - that this time progress can be made. I truly hope so, having had so many kinds of spiritual false starts over the years. Today's mantra ended with "I am stillness." And I realise that I am experiencing a greater stillness in meditation than I've experienced in many years. I'm sure that compared to the stillness of the future what I am experiencing is an insanely busy hive of activity, filled with all the tricks that ego can play, many of which I haven't begun to recognise. But I'm encouraged by the stillness, the peace, and the joy.
I see in the mantra a view of the reality of a person. "I am the joy." "I am stillness." That's a view that's common in religions and philosophies originating in India. The author of the book is very influenced by some of that, having learned much of his own meditation practice through the organisation founded by Paramahansa Yogananda whose Autobiography was read by so many people forty years ago. As a teenager I read some of it - and I've recently bought another copy.
It was Sunday yesterday, and in the evening I was at church. The church has been running a little series on "The Fruit of the Spirit" a list of virtues found in the Bible, in Paul's letter to the church at Galatia. Here's the list, from a blog containing lots of similar images that some of you might enjoy. I hope she doesn't mind me grabbing one of her pictures here but I like it better than the many free images of the fruit being represented by smiling strawberries and suchlike.
Yesterday, quite fortuitously considering my meditation exercise, the series had reached "joy". So the songs were joyful celebrations. The Bible readings included joy. Part of the prayer centred on joy too, but thankfully (for me at least) not in a "Whoop! Whoop! Dance around! I've got that Holy Ghost joy!" kind of a way.
I realised in the time of prayer that I could use the mantra when considering joy for myself. And I could adapt the mantra too as a prayer for others and for the world, "holding them in light" as many Quakers might say: "The world or person fills with light. The world or person finds itself at peace." Now of course me sitting and holding the world in this way for five minutes is not suddenly going to lead to a cessation of all war, hostility, hatred, revenge, horrific misuse of religion and everything else that is going on in the Middle East and elsewhere. It's not going to suddenly halve the crime rate in Newcastle. But if all are ultimately one, or if we're all interlinked then even my small and non-theistic prayer will be added into the melting pot of the psyche of the universe. In this way even intercessory prayer becomes just as possible without a personal, supernatural, all powerful God as with such a being. And even if you want to call that a kind of pseudo-spiritual hogwash then at the very least such a visualisation or meditation will in some way change how I view the world, how I view humanity and so it will change how I live. And that change will have a ripple effect.
A question asked in the service - apart from the preceding question "What is joy anyway?" amounted to "How do we get joy? How do we become joyful?"
The answer given says that it comes through relationship with God, with the divine. That frequently preached answer says that joy isn't something that we humans naturally have but it is God's gift to us, given and grown when we spend time with God, turn ourselves to a life with God, and in faith receive from God. The fruit - including joy - is of the Holy Spirit, a gift that arises and comes out of our relationship with that Holy Spirit. Most churches teach, much as the Catholic Church, that spiritual fruits are "the observable behaviours of people who have allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to be effective in them." And that can work out fine. The god-life can lead to a joy-life.
I noticed how different this totally orthodox Christian view is from the view expressed in my meditation.
The meditation mantra says "I am the joy". I am already the joy. The real me - beyond the physical, beyond ego - is joy. The real me is love, peace, goodness, faithfulness and all the other fruits. I don't have to receive these things because I am them already. I just have to realise that I am that fruit and let go of the ways of ego developed since birth that tell me that I am not.
The Trinitarian Christian says "I am not the joy" and "I must look beyond in search of that joy and seek that it is given to me in and through the Holy Spirit."
That's a massive difference. The meditation says "I am." The Christian says "I am not." I suppose like so many things much of this arises from concepts like original sin. So while the Taoist claims that every child is born in the Tao, perfect and can find that perfection again, the Christian (usually) claims that we are born faulty, born under a curse passed down literally or symbolically from Adam.
So who is right? The Christian who claims that fruit such as joy is an added extra, a gift given from without. Or the Taoist - or Sikh, or many schools of Hinduism and Buddhism - who claims that fruit such as joy is an already state to be realised in an event or ongoing process of enlightenment? And if we call God instead "source" as my meditation book will later, or if we call "The Word" from the beginning of John's gospel "The Tao" as Chinese Bibles do then does at least some of the difference fade away? When I say "I am the joy" I look to "source" to consciously realise that truth, for enlightenment that truth may become my lived experience in this chronos (time-bound) existence.
Personally I'm plumping for the latter view. I am joy. I am peace. I am stillness. I know this is counter-intuitive because my experience in this world contains so much within my mind that is not joy, is not peace, is not stillness. But I have come to believe that my experience, though it most certainly exists, is not the reality that underpins existence.
But last night in church that made little difference. As we asked the Holy Spirit to grant us joy I could join in the request. Not that I be given a joy I lack by an external being. But that I come to realise the reality that I am joy and realise that by a work not of intellect but of spirit. And given the nature of that request and that spirit I can call it Holy Spirit. And as the devout, good, honest Christians prayed their prayer may be answered too. They may find that joy that is within and is real, interpreting it as an added gift, given by grace, planted at conversion and grown by God in relationship.
Will their prayer be answered from within of by a supreme creator/redeemer? At least on this day I have no problem with either answer because - just to leave you in confusion and bewilderment perhaps - I am a nontheist who believes God exists (but not for my experience) and that God does not exist, believing that this personal Christian God story is not the Real but that the Real has room for all kinds of stories, simultaneously existing and not existing together within this unreal universe of existence. Confusing? Perhaps. But ultimately it seem liberating and maybe it will lead me to the place where I can walk in faith with any creed, rooted in love and the wonder of the other, which does not claim a monopoly of truth or hope.
"I am Joy" image taken from this site - from which the acrylic painting can be purchased.