....I try to meditate with reasonable regularity, but I find it hard to stay at it, to stay motivated. Any tips? Micheál O'S.
Dear Micheál, Thanks for your letter. It's always a pleasure to get a question on meditation, because it's the easiest subject in the world to write about! Doing it, though, as you know well, can be a different matter.
Here's my first tip: regularity is the key. If you do it regularly - I mean every day - it stops being a burden after a while; it becomes a natural part of your day, and you would no more want to drop it than you would want to drop breakfast or brushing your teeth.
Which is more natural, to meditate or not to meditate? Until I can say it's more natural to meditate than not to meditate, it will remain a burden, something I have to motivate myself to do. We give reasons for things that we consider optional. But what are your reasons for breathing? What are your reasons for sleeping? For eating? For doing anything that it normal and natural? We don't need to give ourselves reasons for doing those things. On the contrary, we would need to have very good reasons for not doing them. "To seek aright is easier and more natural to us than breathing," wrote the 17th-century French mystic, Jeanne-Marie Guyon.
If you commit yourself wholeheartedly to a practice of meditation, you will no longer need reasons for doing it; you will need reasons for not doing it. I find I have only a limited belief in reasons! Reasons can be shifty things; the mind is very clever and can just as readily find reasons for doing the opposite. When you hear a lot of reasons you sense some kind of reluctance. There is nothing wrong with the rational mind in itself, it is one of God's gifts to us; but it has a habit of taking itself to be the only source of wisdom. Then it tries to impose its edicts, and this makes you a divided kingdom: part of you wants to meditate and the parts that haven't been consulted don't. This is the root of all that resistance. The mediaevals thought of the human faculties as a kind of body politic, with reason as ruler. Very well, but if the fundamental image is ruling and politics, then what you get is politics all the way through. The faculty of will then becomes, what, the army; and all the other faculties are under suspicion of being dissidents and subversives! No, keep politics outside the skin! (Think of reason, if you must, not as a separate 'faculty' but as the clarity of all the 'faculties'.)
In the past people used to marry for reasons, but the reasons had to evolve into something less political and controlling if the marriage was to be a true marriage; you couldn't spend a whole lifetime married for reasons. Likewise meditation. I think of commitment to meditation as a sort of marriage. If you take it up, it has to be "for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until death do us part." Like marriage it has to penetrate the ego, and our rationality is so used to being in the service of the ego that we have to treat it with some suspicion and look for surer footing in a wider place.
I hope this doesn't dishearten you in any way, Micheál. My intention is the opposite. When I say our commitment must be wholehearted I don't mean that we should meditate all day! I mean that if we meditate even for just five minutes, we should do it wholeheartedly. This makes it easier, in fact. A lot of energy is drained away by reluctance and indecision: dawdling is exhausting, as well as being a complete waste. Rather than waste your energy in that way put it into meditation. Then you may find that you are able to meditate for half an hour, or an hour, or even much more!
More natural to meditate than not to meditate? Yes, when you are doing nothing, do nothing. We have all the means of filling empty spaces today: TV, CDs, DVDs, computer games, a bewildering variety of magazines, piped music in supermarkets and churches.... It indicates how terrified we are of silence. It's not natural, it's a neurosis. It is more natural to meditate than not to meditate.
This thought also protects you from a very insidious temptation in religion: the feeling that you deserve brownie points for doing good. You have been a good boy, obeying the ruler reason, and you deserve a treat! But good is its own reason and its own reward. "If you ask a good person, 'Why are you doing good?'" said Meister Eckhart, "he [or she] will reply, 'For goodness' sake!' 'Why do you love God?' 'For God's sake!'"
My second tip: join a meditation group if possible. These usually meet only once a week, but it's a support structure for your daily meditation. You may have some searching to do before you find one that's right for you. Meditation is counter-cultural, so we need some support to stay with it. If you don't find one, you can still create a structure for yourself - by meditating always at the same time and in the same place.
Bail ó Dhia ar an obair! God bless the work!