“Meditation:” It’s Bigger Than Me, No Matter How Much My Head Gets Ahead of My Heart

I got an e-mail from a friend earlier today that moved me deeply in the way he talked about how music was a kind of meditation for him, and he was particularly talking about music as a meditation to help a mutual friend of ours who died recently.  Reading it, my heart was moved — but then I noticed that my head, my more intellectual part, the talker, stepped in, and I was intellectually mumbling to myself that, like so many people, he was using “meditation” in a vague way that doesn’t really help us understand what meditation is or how to use it most effectively.  And these thoughts were causing a small feeling of disapproval, why can’t people talk precisely like I want them to?  I call it a “small” feeling in the sense that it’s importance was tiny compared to our mutual concern for our deceased friend and my acceptance and admiration of my correspondent’s feelings, but I have to be careful of those “small” feelings, they and my verbal thoughts can too easily carry my mind away from what’s important….

One of the greatest personal growth tasks for me in my life has been to recognize my emotions for what they are, especially when my intellect is moving so fast, often apparently “protecting” me from feeling things I don’t want to feel, or helping me stay in feelings I like to feel.  This was an instance of that, and as I thought about it, it made me wonder how much my legitimate and scientific zeal for helping us all have a clearer understanding of practices like meditation has actually seemed like a putdown to some people of what they do.  That certainly isn’t what I’m consciously intending, but one of the things I’ve slowly learned about myself, in spite of my resistance to seeing it, is that sometimes the way I think and talk does make people feel put down, even though I had not intended that.

Those of you who’ve read much of my writings will know I often complain that the word “meditation” is used in so many ways, often contradictory ways, that it doesn’t communicate anything clearly.  If I try to find a universal, basic meaning for what meditation is, based simply on how people in general (and too many meditation teachers) use it, I would say that when someone says they “meditate,” the one thing we can be sure they mean is that they did something which was different from their ordinary mental activity, different in a way they value.  That is indeed pretty vague.

But here was my friend writing from his heart, and some part of me was covering that over with my habitual desire for better intellectual understanding.  I further realized that while there have been innumerable occasions when someone has spoken about their meditation and I wasn’t sure what that meant, it might be the case that they knew quite well what they meant, as well as occasions where they weren’t sure about it.  “Meditation” for them meant doing something quite specific which they found to be effective in various ways.  As my friend illustrated, one can play music on an instrument that is quite “meditative,” even if our habitual immersion in background music may not be at all “meditative.”

It would be awful if I responded to them in a way that communicated any kind of disrespect for what they actually did, or were attempting to do.  Knowing how my intellect can race along much faster than my heart, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have accidentally made people feel put down in spite of my intentions.  This note, then, is an ongoing apology to anyone who has felt insulted or put down by what I’ve written about meditation, or as a specific response to something they’ve said, or what I’ve written in general.  I call it an ongoing apology, as I don’t believe that my becoming aware of it today is sufficient, I think I’ll have to be especially alert to what I’m feeling and communicating in the future around this.

I’m reminded of a powerful teaching I received (was given?) some years ago from something I read in the third volume, the teachers manual, of A Course in Miracles.  References to the “course” below are to A Course in Miracles.

“The role of teaching and learning is actually reversed in the thinking of the world…..It seems as if the teacher and the learner are separated, the teacher giving something to the learner rather than to himself.  Further, the act of teaching is regarded as a special activity, in which one engages only a relatively small proportion of one’s time.  The course, on the other hand, emphasized that to teach is to learn, so the teacher and the learner are the same.  It also emphasizes that teaching is a constant process; it goes on every moment of the day…..”

“To teach is to demonstrate.  There are only two thought systems,” [growthful or self-defeating – CTT] “and you demonstrate that you believe one or the other is true all the time.  From your demonstration others learn, and so do you.  The question is not whether you will teach, for in that there is no choice.  The purpose of the course might be said to provide you with a means of choosing what you want to teach on the basis of what you want to learn.  You cannot give to someone but only to yourself, and this you learn through teaching.   Teaching is but a call to witnesses to attest to what you believe…..Any situation must be to you a chance to teach others what you are, and what they are to you…..”

“The curriculum you set up is therefore determined exclusively by what you think you are, and what you believe the relationship of others is to you.  In the formal teaching situation, these questions may be totally unrelated to what you think you are teaching.  Yet it is impossible not to use the content of any situation on behalf of what you really teach, and therefore really learn.  …..It is the teaching underlying what you say that teaches you.”

So, speaking from my intellect and as a scientist, I will repeat my usual admonition that we as a society could probably make a lot more progress in understanding and utilizing various forms of meditation if we had clearer definitions of exactly what people meant, and the ability to communicate that – including, when it’s difficult, explicit specifications on the order of “I can’t really understand or communicate step 3, but I do it.”  That’s fine when we are having a scientific or intellectual discussion, hoping to advance human knowledge in general.  But when we listening to someone talk about what’s important to them and they use the word meditation, we have to listen very carefully, and with our hearts, as well as our heads.

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