Dear Donagh,

….I have a lot of stress in my life and I'm hoping that meditation will bring me peace of mind and freedom from stress.  Am I using meditation for the wrong purpose…?  Should it be used for its own sake, i.e., to be closer to God?  John M.

Dear John,

Some would say that “to be closer to God” is also a purpose.  But it would be a purpose only for someone who thought that we were distant from God.  If coming closer to God is a purpose, it is already achieved.  We are not distant from God.  God is closer to us, St Augustine said, than we are to ourselves: intimior intimo meo – deeper than my depth, more intimate than all my inwardness. This is something already given, it is not something to be acquired by our efforts – though our response to it calls for effort.  Deeper than all our stresses and struggles there is a bottomless depth of tranquillity in us.  It is the presence of God.  We are “God’s temple” (1 Cor 3: 16-17).  This is our deepest nature, and it is unconditional and indestructible.  Meditation means allowing yourself to realise that you are already there.  It doesn’t mean struggling to achieve some end.  I still remember vividly what a Zen master said to me once when I complained that I was making no progress: “There is no progress,” he said, “there is nowhere to go, there is no distance.” 

It is harder for us now than it was in many periods in the past to realise this.  Our world is addicted to being on the move – and at speed.  We all find it hard to keep up, and yet the speed keeps on increasing.  We are like alcoholics seeking escape from suffering by drinking more and more – which is the very activity that brings more suffering.  This addiction to speed creates enormous stress in many people.  We feel exhausted.  It is not surprising in the least that you want peace of mind and freedom from stress; we all do, even as we continue to make it difficult for ourselves, and even impossible.  Meditation will help you to escape from this double-bind, and there is nothing wrong with practising meditation with that purpose in mind.  But it will do more than that for you.  When you let yourself down into it and it begins to work in you, the “purpose” you have in mind will gradually fade out of the picture and you will meditate for its own sake.  So don’t worry about your motives.  In retrospect you will probably see the hand of Providence in the circumstances that brought you to meditation.  Without that goad you might never have started. 

As you pay attention to your breathing in meditation you can be aware, with every intake of breath, that everything you have is received as a gift.  The oxygen you breathe is a gift from all the trees that have ever grown on this earth.  Your warm body is a gift from your ancestors.  Every thought and word in your mind is absorbed from your culture.  Every religious sentiment is mediated to you by the wise men and women who walked before you.  Everything is received as a gift.  Then as you exhale you can be aware that everything you have is for giving away.  Imagine how it would be if suddenly one day you could no longer give yourself away: if nobody wanted anything from you, if nobody wanted your help, your advice, your gifts, your stories, your company…. What a hell that would be!  No, the fulfilment of your life is not to hold on to everything but to give everything away.  This is what the wise ones tell us.  And that may well be the very key to relieving stress.  A great deal of stress is the fear of losing what we have, and a desperate attempt to hold onto it.  Breathing deeply and freely in meditation, you slowly loosen that tense grip of anxiety in your stomach.

Continue with a good conscience, John.  Meditation itself will teach you. 


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