Meditation is more than silence and emptiness

There is an exciting dimension to meditation, which is often ignored or even dismissed. This is the exploration of altered states of consciousness, and mystic and psychic experiences.

There are several reasons for this omission. The first is a misunderstanding of the Buddhist idea of emptiness. Western interpretations have dumbed down sunyata (Sanskrit), a complex concept that attempts to describe meditators’ calm experience of infinite unknowing. This has been inaccurately interpreted to mean a void in which there is nothing but silence and emptiness. In fact, the void of sunyata is an infinite space that harmoniously includes and contains everything.  

(Representation of the observable universe on a logarithmic scale by Unmismoobjetivo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A second reason for ignoring the spirituality and metaphysics of meditation has been a utilitarian move to present meditation as a safe secular practice that soothes and supports wellbeing. The fear in education and medicine is that the metaphysical aspects of meditation will sabotage its mainstream acceptance.

A third related reason is a cultural snobbery around spiritual and psychic experiences, which are often judged as naive or, worse, a possible symptom of mental illness. So, many meditators keep quiet about their spiritual experiences, not wanting to be the targets of unpleasant comment.

This distrust of meditation’s metaphysics is often supported by a famous story about an experienced meditation teacher and an enthusiastic student.

Enthusiastic student: My meditation was amazing! I saw angels and fantastic colours! I heard a voice and felt the vibration of liberated beings!

Teacher: Be quiet. All that will pass.

(Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand – 018 Devas in Heaven, CC BY 2.0)

This fable is often used to assert that all psychic phenomena in meditation are irrelevant figments of the imagination and distractions.

But that is not the real lesson of the story.

The actual teaching is more important: whatever the experience, meditators need to maintain a state of watchful, calm and compassionate equanimity.

Inside this composed mood, meditators can then observe all phenomena with a kind but detached curiosity, and assess the usefulness and value of whatever has arisen. Importantly they can also discern whether the phenomena are creations of their own psyches or are external realities; and if the phenomena are indeed creations of their own psyches, they can reflect on why they have arisen.

The story about the teacher and student does not tell students to dismiss all phenomena. It tells them to observe with equanimity whatever arises.

We can immediately see here the psychological value of mature meditation. Mindful curiosity allows meditators to calmly engage with their experiences. The sensations and memories, for example, of traumatic events can be witnessed as they emerge as thoughts, feelings and subtle sensations. Tranquil breath and self-care then enable a healing process of acceptance and integration.

(Francesco Botticini – The Assumption of the Virgin)

Beyond this internal psychological dimension, there are also the external spaces accessed in altered states of consciousness. This is where meditation starts to be a whole lot of fun. But I need to be crystal clear. At the risk of repetition, exploration of these psychic dimensions has to be practised with compassionate equanimity. Perceptions and experiences are always balanced with reflective and sceptical detachment. Otherwise the result can be dissociation into a psychic Disneyland.

That said, the cosmos and its subtle dimensions are full of interesting phenomena, beings and experiences. Our psyches are totally free to explore the cosmic environment. This is the greater ecosystem. Big bang. Time. Consciousness. Gaia. Christ. The Divine Feminine. These are just hints at what the meditative psyche may explore. Exploration expands consciousness and connection.

Remember that Buddhist paintings of meditation and its inner realms are not empty but filled with strange beings.

Humans are never freer than when the psyche is in meditation. Any limits are only self-imposed and do not come from external agents. (Trust meditation teachers who empower you to explore!)

In exploring these metaphysical realms it is useful for practitioners to understand their own levels of psychic sensitivity and their own psychological tendencies. I often think that the differences between the many schools of meditation come from their founders’ different levels of psychic sensitivity. For example, if practitioners are not at all psychic, then because they do not have the same experiences, they may naturally be sceptical of psychic phenomena. At the same time, those who are naturally psychic often need to discipline themselves, so as not to get lost or distracted by their perceptions. Equally meditators who possess busy minds need to calm their endless interpretations.

In my classes I often ask for a show of hands to find out where people are located on a spectrum of psychic sensitivity. We then unpack together how this influences their meditative experiences.

In a recent training for meditation teachers, there were some colleagues who were very psychic and always perceiving beings from other dimensions. Other colleagues were more oriented towards ‘melting’ into a sense of unity with all that is. The conversation between the two groups was very helpful in highlighting how these differences influence our experience of meditation. That said, there was never disagreement about the core requirement of calm equanimity, or that spiritual growth is always about compassion, connection and consciousness.

The Indian sage Patanjali (500-400 BC) described the subtle phenomena of meditation as coming from an ‘over-shadowing cloud of spiritual knowledge’ or a ‘raincloud of knowable things.’

When meditators start to describe their metaphysical experiences, it can be problematic for sceptics, triggering warnings of naivete, delusion and possible mental illness. This is understandable. There are indeed delusions.

My response is to be reassuring to that caution.

Meditation is not an empty void but an expansive ocean. Therefore practitioners are continuously developing the skills of perception, discernment and interpretation.

Cosmic curiosity — exploring metaphysical dimensions — is healthy, positive and developmental. 

(For a relevant online workshop on this theme click here)

How Meditation Was Invented

How Meditation Was Invented

people floating in the dead sea

First published in Cygnus Review Spring 2019. This is an excerpt from the book ‘Meditation Masterclass’ to be published later this year.

Having taught meditation for decades, I want to reassure people that meditation is a natural human behaviour. All you need is an instinct be quiet and calm.  

So why are there all these competing meditation traditions and schools? Here are three short stories that illustrate how meditation might have been invented.

The Householder Who Invented Meditation

A woman lived in a village in a house full of children and relatives. One day she felt an instinct to get away from the noise and activity. She walked until she found a quiet spot under a tree by a stream.

She closed her eyes. She felt the tree against her back and the soft grass and earth beneath her. The breeze touched her cheeks. The sound of the stream was soothing.

After a few minutes she felt some anxiety and accompanying thoughts about her family and neighbours. She felt impatient and an urge to go home. But she stayed sitting quietly.

She sighed, noticed tension in her chest and began to breathe more softly.

She stayed sitting quietly, just patiently waiting, letting her body and feelings become more easy. This felt good.

She returned the next day. And the next. And the next.

She was meditating. Her mind and her feelings were calm. Her psyche was able to contemplate, enquire and explore.

 

 

The Worker Who Invented Meditation

A man worked in the city and was stressed and anxious. His doctor prescribed a sedative, which he took for several weeks but disliked its side effects.

Following an instinct he stopped taking the medication and on his way to and from work he began to stop regularly to calm himself – sometimes on a park bench, sometimes in a church or library.

Pausing and sitting quietly soothed him.

This pausing to self-soothe became a daily behaviour.

After a few months something else began to happen when he sat quietly. A part of his mind started to enquire: Who is this inside me who is choosing to calm myself? What is this part of me watching and guiding all this? Wow! Here is another part of my consciousness. It feels good and interesting. I want to sit longer and explore all this.

He was meditating.

The Warrior Who Invented Meditation

There is a soldier who was weary of fighting. One day, off duty, she felt a rising anger within her and recognised that she needed to calm down.

She followed her instincts and found a space where she could not be observed. She then practised some of her martial arts moves – strikes, punches and kicks – at the same time vigorously expelling air from her lungs with grunting breaths.

After thirty minutes of this extreme activity and catharsis, she could still feel some of her internal fury. Her next instinct was to sit still.

Disciplined and self-managing, she sat quietly for a while. Her mind scanned the circumstances of her life, contemplating her ethics and her behaviour.

Her anger subsided. She was in a space of watchful good-humoured equanimity.

She began to repeat the behaviour daily.

She had become a meditator.

A Meditation Contest

Imagine if the Householder, the Worker and the Warrior each attracted followers who copied their meditation behaviour. We now have three different meditation schools and there is the possibility of conflict.

My teachers says you must meditate in nature.

No only in a sacred space!

No!  Do these movements and chant!

Breathe like this.

Don’t do anything. Just be!

Today in our global village we can see so many meditation schools, such as yoga, chanting, Vipassana, mantra, prayer, mindfulness, guided journeys, healing and more. Newbies and teachers often think that their way is the only or the best way instead of honouring and exploring the different traditions.

Universal State

Wonderfully, although there are all these different approaches there is also, I assert, a universal state, which all meditators experience. This state is profound:

  • We are at ease.
  • We are conscious, awake and watchful.
  • We patiently witness and experience everything with care and compassion.
  • We feel connected to the beautiful mystery of all existence.

No wonder there is a natural human instinct to meditate. It is good for us and all those around us.

The above passage was then incorporated into my Meditation Masterclass

 

 

Glastonbury Abbey Meditation & Prayer Walk

Glastonbury Abbey Meditation and Prayer Walk

Introduction

Glastonbury Abbey is a place of Christian hospitality. In that spirit, we welcome people of all faiths and of no faith. And we invite you to enjoy our Prayer and Meditation Moments.

For hundreds of years this beautiful abbey was a place of worship, of learning and of sanctuary. As you enter its grounds, you may want to contemplate that your life is a spiritual journey.

Wherever you approach one of the areas indicated on the map, slow down and pause. Take the opportunity to breathe calmly and find peace within yourself. Then, if it feels right, follow the brief instructions.

You can do as many or as few of these Prayer and Meditation Moments as you choose. There is no particular sequence to them so you can do them in any order that works for you. We have however mapped two walks – a short one and a long one – which you might want to explore.

ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL

Many people came to Glastonbury Abbey for healing.  Sit quietly in this chapel. As best you can, breathe calmly and allow your body to sink and be at ease. Quietly say this prayer:

I am open to receive the gift of healing.
May all people and creatures be blessed with good health.

  

HOLY THORN

This Glastonbury Thorn tree flowers twice a year in Winter and in Spring, like a Middle Eastern thorn.  Legend suggests that it is a cutting from an ancient line of trees that dates back to the visits of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. Quietly contemplate:

How wonderful that the cells of this tree carry its history and its future.
May I always see the connections and wonder of all life.

LADY CHAPEL Upper Level

This chapel is dedicated to the worship and celebration of Mary the mother of Christ. The divine female can be found in many spiritual traditions. Quietly say this prayer:

Mother of the world, help me to love and care for all beings.

 

ST JOSEPH’S CHAPEL Lower Level

There are legends that Joseph, the uncle of Jesus, came to this very spot bringing the chalice from the Last Supper. Walk slowly and mindfully towards the altar. Quietly say this prayer:

I am grateful that I am safe and have a home.
May all people have a safe home.

 

ARTHUR’S TOMB

Legend states that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried here. Their court was home to the Round Table of chivalrous and brave knights. Quietly say this prayer:

In a world of injustice may I have the strength, courage and wisdom to support and champion the weak and vulnerable.

CLOISTER

Here in the cloister the monks walked slowly, praying and contemplating life. See how slowly you can walk around the cloister and at the same time calm your breathing.

May I be slow and calm. May I be wiser and more loving. Help me understand life’s difficulties and guide me into clarity.

ABBOT’S KITCHEN

In this kitchen food was prepared daily for the Abbot’s visitors. Quietly say this prayer:

The food I eat comes from nature, plants, animals, farmers, transporters, traders and cooks. I give thanks to all of them.
May everyone be fed and well.

 

HERB GARDEN

A monastic Herb garden would have supplied medicines, aromas and flavours. Quietly say this prayer:

I give thanks for the beautiful diversity and healing power of nature; and I give thanks too for the gardeners and their care.

ORCHARD

Every year this beautiful orchard gives an abundant harvest of apples. Quietly say this prayer:

Thank you mother nature for your beauty and your abundance. May I always remember and care for you.

 

FISH POND (Lower)

Water is one of the four ancient elements. Earth. Water. Air. Fire. This beautiful pond is cradled by earth. It is filled with water.Airand wind play on it. Light from the fireof the sun reflects from its surface. Quietly say this ancient prayer:

Earth my body. Water my blood. Air my breath. And Fire my spirit.
I am one with All That Is. 

WILDLIFE POND (Upper)

‘Ask the animals,’ said St Francis, ‘and they will teach you the beauty of this earth.’ At this pond we find fish and fowl. Pause. Calm your breath and be at ease.  Notice the fish, the birds, and the insects. Be aware too of the sky and the hills around you. Feel the air against your skin. Quietly say this prayer:

I give thanks for the blessings and gifts of all animals. May all creatures be treated with care and respect.

 

PARK AREA – BODY PRAYER 

There is a beautiful tradition of moving your body in tune with a prayer.

Slowly raise your arms above your head and stretch upwards:

The universe is filled with mystery and love.

Slowly bring your hands down and place them over your heart:

I too am filled with mystery and love.

Lower your hands so that your palms face the earth – or kneel down and touch the earth:

I bless the Earth and all living beings.

Repeat the action as many times as you like.

 

WILDLIFE AREA

In this area we celebrate untamed nature – God’s garden.  Be quiet. Imagine our whole planet and humanity living in complete harmony with the natural world. Quietly say this prayer:

From the tiniest insect and wild flower, out to the greatest ocean and mountain, may I celebrate the beauty of all creation.

BEAUTIFUL TREE 

Choose any tree that you like. In many spiritual traditions, trees are a symbol of strength and wisdom. Pause and imagine that you are a tree. Imagine and sense that you have roots growing deep into the ground. Feel the strength of your trunk. Feel the flexibility and movement of your branches.Quietly say this prayer:

In a world of endless change and noise, may I be like this tree – strong, flexible and wise.

*

You can view and download a PDF of this leaflet on the Glastonbury Abbey website: https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/resources/glastonbury_abbey_meditation_and_prayer_walk.pdf

What is Health and Healing?

Every Thursday at noon I sit in St Joseph’s Chapel in Glastonbury Abbey and participate in a healing meditation. It is a simple twenty-minute session: being still; awareness that healing is always available; receiving healing; sending healing to wherever there is suffering.

Sometimes in this meditation I contemplate what exactly is happening. I have one sceptical brain cell enquiring whether spiritual healing is real, or whether it is just a displacement activity to make me feel useful in a world where I may be useless. But this doubt is more than balanced by a clear sense, a deep knowing, that something real and useful is truly happening

In my meditation I also enjoy contemplating the nature of good health. Good health it seems to me  is best defined as a state of comfort and flexibility.  There is enjoyable harmony and flow. This applies to both our physical and mental states. It is similar too for societies. Bad health is the opposite. Illness is pain and rigidity. Movement hurts – physically and emotionally. Nothing flows.

If we accept this simple flip-flop – comfort and flexibility versus pain and rigidity – then we can suggest a coherent definition of healing. Healing is surely anything that facilitates comfort and flexibility. This definition is appropriate for modern medicine. It also reflects the Taoist philosophy that the universe is a harmonious ocean of flowing states; so a healthy state, for an individual or a community, is also to be in harmony with this continuous flux and flow.

In this context the process of all healing methods – surgery, medication, touch, spiritual healing, exercise, diet, being in nature and so on – can then be easily described. First, identify what is uncomfortable and rigid. Second, intervene with an appropriate strategy to enable comfort and flow. 

There are obvious problems of course if we deny or misdiagnose the rigidity. More difficulties can be triggered too if we seek an easy healing intervention, instead of an effective one.  A simple example from most of our lives is when we feel emotional pain and then intervene with food instead of perhaps some quiet in nature or a dance.

It is a simple reality of life that most of us at some time or another experience pain and therefore seek healing. The good news is that within each of us is there is a great doctor, a wonderful agent of healing: our own consciousness. 

Your consciousness – your mind, your awareness, your soul – can acknowledge your pain, seek to understand it and find the best medicine to bring yourself back into flow, comfort and flexibility.

An Autumn Meditation

Take some quiet time and sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Let your body just sink and drop into being at ease. Like in a deckchair; or after a satisfying meal; or looking at a favourite view.

Allow your abdomen to relax, sink and drop.

Imagine and sense your abdomen happily sinking down into the earth.

You are a strong and mature tree. With deep roots. A strong, thick trunk.

Enjoy a feeling of sinking down into the earth and being part of this large, warm and nurturing mother planet

Become aware now of your branches and your foliage.

With the turn of the weather and the rhythm of the seasons, you have hardly noticed that your leaves have turned from green to gold and are being carried by the wind and falling to the ground.

Sense that these golden leaves are old thoughts and feelings that you no longer need.

Let them go.

Enjoy how easily they are released.

Welcome the coming Winter.

Allow yourself to be nurtured.

Know that a new expansion will come in the Spring.

*   *   *

 

And here is a relevant quotation which you might also appreciate, from Alice Bailey’s Discipleship in the New Age Vol 1.

The past has gone.

I am that past.

It makes me what I am.

The future comes.

I also am the coming destiny and, therefore, I am that.

The present flows from out the past.

The future colors that which is.

I make the future also by my present knowledge of the past

And the beauty of the present.

And therefore I am that I am.

Why I Meditate – A List of Reasons

Why I Meditate – A List of Reasons


There was a mixed reaction from the audience when I said that I meditated for two hours every day.

A few shook their heads in concerned bewilderment. Why was he wasting his time?

But several people in the audience were also meditators and understood.

The situation was an academic conference at Kent University on transformative education. I was prefacing my presentation with some autobiographical information.

An interesting challenge came from one professor. He was concerned that meditation might reinforce an established sense of self and do nothing to develop anything new. He was thinking particularly of fellow academics who were not open to developing their thinking and just used meditation for self-soothing. I welcomed his disquiet.

*

So why do I meditate?

Yes – I enjoy it very much.

But more than that, it is the most productive and creative period of my day.

In Autobiography of a Yogi Yogananda suggests that  in terms of service and self-development one good meditation is worth a year’s living. I agree! But how can that be?

So let me list some of the things that happen in my meditation.

 

INTO THE ZONE

First I just sit, am patient and wait. Wait until I go into the zone. By the zone I mean that my body, emotions and thoughts are at ease – and that I am mentally very conscious, alert and watchful.

At ease and alert.

At the same time I feel connected with . . . what shall I call it? I feel connected with life, with the flow, with all that is . . .

I can come into the zone even if I am in physical pain or emotional distress. (This is when many people give up and walk away.) I am in both states at the same time. In the zone. In my humanity.

 

HEALING

Just being in the zone is profoundly healing. It soothes my biology, my nervous system, brain, endocrine system, heart rate variability, breath and gut. This is a powerful foundation for good physical health.

I also allow myself to absorb the benevolent vitality that permeates the cosmos. I circulate and absorb the healing energy deep into my bones, spine, brain and tissue.

 

WATCHING, WATCHING, WATCHING

All the time in meditation I am coming home to witnessing and watching. Guiding myself to be compassionate, empathic, accepting and kind. Completely trusting the whole process even when the sensations and feelings that arise in me are tortured. Breathing into and through whatever arises. Accepting, integrating, healing. This is so good for my psychological health.

INNER DIALOGUE

Connected and calm I am my own best friend, counsellor, guide and therapist. As difficult feelings, thoughts and sensations arise within me I give them care and attention. I converse and create relationship with them. This is an essential part of my healing and development.

 

REFLECTIVE PRACTICE

Inside every meditation I carefully review my life. I look at how I conduct my relationships, the quality of my emotions, my livelihood, my ecological awareness, my engagement as a citizen, my prejudices, my neuroses, my talents, my future. It is in meditation that I see myself with clarity and can guide my development and behaviour. At the same time I sense how my consciousness needs to expand and I experiment with altered states.

 

CLEARING MY DESK

My meditation time is also part of my work. It is the best possible space to look at and be mindful of business. Mortgage, projects, colleagues, finance, relationships, next steps . . .  Everything benefits from meditative awareness. Here I can prepare and train myself. What better place to contemplate the actual activities of my life? My wise self can shine light on everything.

 

SEED THOUGHT CONTEMPLATION

This is part of the education that happens in my meditation. I can contemplate any concept or idea and allow my awareness to be open to learning. Insights come from what Patanjali called the raincloud of knowable things. I might for example choose to focus on the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation. I can contemplate any symbol or myth, ideology or philosophy, idea or theory. Revisiting a concept day by day, perhaps for years, I learn.

 

METAPHYSICS, ESOTERICS AND EXPLORING THE COSMOS

Another educational aspect of meditation for me is to connect with the vibration and energy of a metaphysical ‘thing’. What is Aquarius? What is God? What is Mary? What are the higher planes? What is Christ? What is the heart chakra? What is a landscape spirit or angel of healing? And so on. In the calm I connect with the ‘thing’ and allow impressions to land. I learn from feeling and sensing the quality.

 

SERVICE AND INVOCATION

Every meditation also includes periods of service. Mainly I practice Tonglen (Tibetan Buddhist) or turning the other cheek (Christian.) I tune into suffering and negativity, and breathe it into my own body and aura. I hold it, absorb it, cleanse it and then breathe out a blessing.  I also scan my neighbourhood for people and animals who have died, are lost and may need help moving across into the ‘clear light’. And of course I send love and loving waves of positive energy to my family, colleagues, students, folk in distress, world leaders, etc.

 

EMPTYING AND SURRENDER

And for me most important of all, I practice being empty and yielding to the sheer beauty, mystery and benevolence of all that is.

*

Of course how I practice meditation is not the same as everyone. For example I rarely use mantra, prayer or visualisation, which I know can be central features for others. But the more I teach and enable meditation – especially how to teach and guide it – the more I assert with confidence that, regardless of our beliefs, style or background, we all enter the zone and connection.

*

And all of that is what I would like to have said to the academics at the conference who wondered why I meditate and if I was just wasting my time. Mm. Wasting time. That’s a good seed thought for meditation: What is time?

*

May 2020
Most of my ideas about meditation are now available in my Meditation Masterclass.

Book Cover Meditation Masterclass by William Bloom