Shedding Some Light on Meditation

There is a spiritual teacher by the name of Lama Surya Das. I don’t know much about him except that he is an older Western spiritual seeker who has apparently achieved a certain mastery of meditation in one line of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is connected to the Dalai Lama, and he also is very familiar with the Theravada meditation schools and the Zen of Japan. He has been a teacher of meditation for decades. Can’t vouch for him overall, but he does have sensible, incisive and wise things to say about meditation and its popularity in our culture. I saw an interview with him and here is one quote:

So many people seem to be moving narcissistically — conditioned by our culture, doubtless — into self-centered happiness-seeking and quietism, not to mention the use of mindfulness for mere effectiveness. True meditation generates wisdom and compassion, which may be very disquieting, at least in the short term.”

True, and it is amazing how easily any spiritual path can be absconded in a sense and used for purposes almost the opposite of what the path has as a goal. The “meditation movement” in our society is one of these phenomena. Meditation, abstracted from any religious or theological framework and devoid of real spiritual discipline, has become a kind of pop icon for “spirituality”–whatever that is. “Mindfulness” is a key term for a lot of these people, and it is a term that can be applied without any commitment to any religious way of life. Surya Das has some acerbic comments:

“Mindful divorce, mindful parenting, mindful TV. Why not mindful sniping, poaching, or mindful waiting to find the opportunity to take advantage of and exploit someone when there’s a chink in their armor?”

Mindfulness has become a tool for many New Agers and others to become more effective persons, whatever they are engaged in. I have also seen Buddhist meditation practice and Zen promoted as “practices” to enhance your capabilities as a businessperson, as a soldier, as a lover, as an artist, etc., etc. Whatever be the merits of such claims, the heart of the problem is that such an approach only reinforces the ego-identity and in fact inflates it even more so. Nothing like these expensive retreats where mostly it’s your ego that gets massaged–in addition to the rest of you!

Surya Das points to this problem, but he also is worried that only one kind of meditative practice is being pushed as “meditation,” which then discourages people who have a difficult time with this approach. Let’s have him explain this: “’Quiet your mind’ or ‘calm and clear your mind’ are instructions I hear way too much. Some teachers actually encourage people to try to stop thinking, when in fact meditative awareness means being mindful of thoughts and feelings, not simply trying to reduce, alter or white them out and achieve some kind of oblivion.”


It’s important to realize that even within one given religious tradition, like Buddhism, there can be some very real different approaches to the spiritual life and actual practices. It is no good to insist on one and the same approach for everyone. What Lama Surya Das teaches comes from one line of Tibetan Buddhism and it has a strong mental activity aspect to it (like visualizations). This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but then again neither is the silent Zen meditation; and to insist on one approach only is to frustrate a goodly number of spiritual seekers. Surya Das is wise in acknowledging that he is mainly trying to help people who have a hard time with the “silent” meditation approach.


And it is interesting that also within Christianity there is that same variety of approaches to the Divine Mystery. For some it is the words of Scripture pondered slowly and thoughtfully that lead one into the depths of an inner silence; for others it is the rosary; for many others it is a mantra of sorts, like the Jesus Prayer. Merton almost never wrote or spoke about his personal prayer life–except once in a letter to a Sufi friend in Pakistan. He spent a period of time both in the morning and in the evening doing what might be called meditation, but it definitely has this theological framework and very solidly rooted in the mystical tradition of Christianity. What is interesting here is how he explains it to his Sufi friend in terms that would connect to Sufi understanding and at the same time you sense hints here how he was benefitting from Zen and how he would later learn from the Tibetans. Let me quote him here:

“Now you ask about my method of meditation. Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as ‘being before God as if you saw Him.’ Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much to what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present ‘myself’ this I recognize as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems to itself to be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.”


What Merton is describing is in a sense pure simplicity, but a simplicity that hides some unspeakable depths that can give one a kind of spiritual vertigo! Many probably would actually prefer a more “complicated” approach to prayer/meditation because it then seems to give the ego something to do. At some point in the spiritual life the simplicity that Merton describes is best–but be assured that is not so easily done or everyone’s way.