Dear Donagh,

…. I want to ask you about meditation because a friend of mine told me you are one of the people to go to.  I was involved with YCW for many years and so See, Judge and Act is very much part of the way I think.  It doesn’t seem to be getting me anywhere with meditation, though.  I can't see what I'm trying to do, so I can't judge it, and so I don’t know how to act.  Am I missing something?  Thanks for your website.  Alan

Dear Alan,

Yes, the idea of meditation seems very simple in itself, but it can be difficult to get a handle on it in practice – because the practice is even simpler than the idea.  Trying to find our way to it is like trying to eat with extremely long-handled cutlery: all our mental tools seem somehow too clumsy.  You are experiencing this yourself, and that is an indication of how serious you are about meditating.  I met someone once who said he was interested in it for many years, but it turned out that he had never even once tried to meditate.  He was interested in the idea of it, not in the practice.  Meditators usually refer to their “practice” – a good corrective. 

I'm not being glib, but the “person to go to” is your good self.  From other people, and from books, you can only get second-hand knowledge.  The normal mental tools are very good for that kind of knowledge, but not for bringing you to meditation.  ‘See, Judge and Act’ is a useful and sensible approach to almost every question.  But ‘seeing’ inserts a space between you and what you are looking at: you cannot see something that is intensely close to you.  Judging widens that space.  This is a good thing in most situations, but it is just here that meditation is different.  Meditation is closer than close.  

We like to command a view.  "The human mind... loves to lie concealed," wrote St Augustine in the 5th century, "yet it wishes that nothing should be concealed from it."  That is something that hasn’t changed since then – except to become intensified.  There are probably several newspapers in the world called ‘The Observer’, or something equivalent, like ‘The Spectator’, ‘The Sentinel’, ‘The Recorder’ (and while we are here let’s not forget the famous ‘Skibbereen Eagle’).  In my student days I was editor of a magazine called ‘The Watchman’ (which was regularly mistaken for The Watchtower).  All these titles suggest a lofty perspective, noble detachment, sublime impartiality.  The outsider, the observer, the critic: these are given absolute authority in our age.  Swift, in the 18th century, called them "the tribes of Answerers, Considerers, Observers, Reflectors, Detectors, Remarkers."  The problem is that all our considering and reflecting and remarking is directed outwards to other things, and not to the mind itself that “loves to lie concealed.”  And even when we try to think about that mind, we turn it into an object; we make it ‘objective’ – our highest word of praise.  But that is just what it is not: an object.  There is an irreducible subjectivity that our mental tools are unable to handle. 

So what is it like, this subjective ‘knowledge’?  First of all, if what you mean by ‘knowledge’ is that objective knowledge that I described, then this isn’t knowledge.  It is more like awareness or feeling (though it is more than a feeling).  Secondly we have to shed the negative connotations of the word ‘subjective’.  It has come to mean biased, jaundiced, influenced by personal tastes and opinions.  These would certainly be problems in the field of objective knowledge.  But this other strange ‘knowledge’ is like a background; it can never become foreground; if you focus on it as you would on an object, you turn it into an object, and that is how it escapes you.  Think of the headlamp of a car: it can never turn back on itself.  All the light comes from there, but just behind the light is darkness.  You cannot ‘grasp’ this kind of knowledge; instead you are somehow grasped by it.  All you can do is “step back into it” – a favourite expression of Miriam Healy Sensei, the Zen teacher who stays with us in Tallaght. 

How do you step back into it?  First, make sure you are not trying to get your head around it; that would be the wrong kind of effort.  Then, follow the advice we are given: sit with a good posture and put your whole attention on your breath.  When your attention strays, bring it back – again and again.  Don’t ask what you are getting out of your effort – meditation will do its own work in its own way and in its own time.  You just stay put.  There is nothing there for the ego.  Like any unfed thing it will make its hunger known.  But hold your station.  Hold it day after day and don’t give up.  One glorious day it will become clear to you.  What St Bernard said about love of God is equally true of meditation: “God is not loved without reward, but God should be loved without thought of reward.”  Meditation will change and deepen you, but don’t ask how. 


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