Dear Donagh, You must be tired of people asking you about meditation. I hope you don't mind another question on the subject. I joined a John Main meditation group a few months ago. We meet once a week, and I try to meditate every day at home but I don't feel I'm really in it. I feel nothing, I just go through it and nothing happens, I don't think I'm in contact with God at all. Sometimes I'm day-dreaming and sometimes I'm just a blank. I don't feel that I am meditating at all. I'm ashamed to admit to the others how poor my performance is. Am I doing something wrong? What should it be like if I was doing it right? I would be glad to hear your thoughts on the subject. Jim Mc
Dear Jim, No problem about asking another question on the subject of meditation. There’s really no such thing as meditation; there are just people who meditate. The question is not separate from the person asking it. You don't need to be ashamed of your performance, because meditation isn't a performance; and besides, everyone there is struggling just like you.
Most people come to meditation with some expectations: they want it to be some kind of experience that they have read or heard about, or they want it to produce certain results. All such expectations are a hindrance, because they are about the past or the future, not about the present.
The word ‘present’ is the key to it; or the word ‘now’. Everyone I've met in the last couple of years seems to have read, or to be reading, Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now. ‘Now’ is a short word, and what it refers to is even shorter: the present moment has no duration at all. There’s no time in it for thoughts or expectations.
When you take these out, what’s left? When you take out all the furniture a room looks very bare! Two lines from W.B. Yeats: “At stroke of midnight soul cannot endure / A bodily or mental furniture.” Meditation is that fleeting instant between past and future, just as midnight is the invisible frontier between one day and the next. There’s no time for the mind to latch onto a thought, or for the feelings to unroll themselves – because the next moment has already arrived. Meditation is totally simple, and for that very reason it is difficult! Why, because we are much more used to dealing with mental content than with inner space itself. We make a room in our house – a word that means ‘space’ – and we immediately fill it with furniture, making it less and less a room. Many people can't endure an empty space on a wall; they have to hang something there. It’s like baroque art and architecture: all decoration, no background.
When you sit in an empty room you are more aware of the absence of decoration than of the room itself. There’s a lot to think and say and feel about decoration, but nothing to say about the empty space. You can't put it ‘out there’ or ‘in front of’ your mind to think about it, because you are in it; it encloses you; it is nearer to you than all decoration. The mind is like that. You are it. It is something you look out from, rather than something you can look at.
So if you feel that you are nothing when you meditate, that's good! It means that you have become free for a moment of all mental furniture and decoration, and you are in touch with your true nature: which is, as Johann Tauler put it, “an empty place where God may do his work.” Your own “emptiness”, as the saints have called it, is the place of meeting with God – who is not another piece of decoration.
The Holy of Holies – the innermost space in the Temple in Jerusalem, where only the high priest could enter once a year – was completely empty in the time of Jesus. It was called “the place of meeting.” All our words and images, which are so useful and necessary, are left at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the gospels say, “the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This was the veil in front of the Holy of Holies. What was the meaning of this? St Paul interpreted it to mean that we are now the Holy of Holies. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). It seems we have to get used to being an empty space, a temple for God.
Just as our own nature is deeper than all the thoughts and images that pass through our minds (even thoughts and images of ourselves), God’s nature too is beyond all our thoughts and images. To identify God with our thoughts and images of God would clearly be idolatry. The word ‘idolatry’ is from a combination of two Greek words, ‘eidōlon’ (image) and ‘latreia’ (adoration). Idolatry is the worship of images. In meditation we are becoming free of that trap.
How can we persuade ourselves to enter the Holy of Holies and stay there for some time without bringing our stuff with us? The John Main tradition (and others too) suggests the use of a mantra, and in particular the word ‘maranatha’. As you know, their answer to every difficulty in meditation is: return to the repetition of the mantra. This cuts through all the entanglements of thoughts and images. It’s very effective. Others suggest just following the breath, which has the same effect. They all advise us not to become discouraged when our minds wander and we begin to daydream. Just quietly return to the mantra, or to following the breath. If you feel nothing, that's far from being a problem. If you think nothing is happening, don't worry. Just keep going, and don't be watching your performance. Just keep doing it, knowing that your sheer presence by itself is your contact with God. If you really are in the Holy of Holies, there’s nothing and no one to meet except God, who is beyond thought and images. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
“Am I doing something wrong?” you asked. From reading your letter, my guess is that you are doing it right. The only thing that seems wrong is your habit of checking and assessing your performance. When you are doing that you are not allowing the mantra (or the breath) to turn in you, like a wheel. You are putting a stick in the spokes.
Keep going, Jim. The process of meditation corrects itself as it goes.