Dear Donagh,

… I attended a meditation weekend a couple of weeks ago….  It was residential….  I went there with an open mind and the best of intentions.  I had heard so much talk about meditation that I felt I owed it to myself to find out about it.  But after the very first session I was so irritated by [the teacher] that it was effectively over for me.  We were talked down to as if we were dimwits.  But he was the dimwit.  He had nothing to offer except clichés and things you wouldn’t insult a child’s intelligence with – “relax completely, breathe..”  It rankled with me to think that I had paid 200 euro for that.  It’s a con job, I guarantee you that.  I believe you put on meditation courses in your retreat house too.  I was giving out about the course when I came home, and my daughter gave me your email address.  Give it a chance, she said.  Well, don’t go to any trouble, but if you have anything interesting to say about meditation I'll read it, to satisfy my daughter….  PJ

Dear PJ,

Thanks, I'm glad to get this kind of letter. 

Sorry that you feel you didn’t get value for your money.  Don’t forget that most of it went towards wages, food, heating, cleaning and laundry, insurance, maintenance, and overhead costs; and the rest went towards the teacher’s travel expenses, and a few bob for his time. 

As in every transaction, it all depends on what you have been expecting.  Meditation teachers actually don’t promise to give you anything.  What they promise, if we stick with it, is to take a lot of things away from us (not just €200!).  They promise to loosen up a lot of our fixed ideas and judgments (especially the ones we may be unaware of harbouring); to try to help us discover our blind spots; to cut off the escape routes we take when we notice something ugly in the way we live; to discourage us from seeing everything in reference to ourselves; and generally to destabilise the ego.  That's a lot of value for money, but not in the usual sense.  A friend of mine, some years ago, was sceptical about meditation, just like you; but he went along in any case to hear about it, just like you.  At the end of the introductory session the teacher asked if there were any comments or questions.  “I don’t buy it!” announced my friend, just like you.  Quick as a shot, the teacher replied, “I'm not selling it.”  It was that instant response that changed my friend’s attitude right around.  He has been a serious meditator ever since. 

Yes, breathing.  It’s something we all do, so it’s nothing special.  Even cats and dogs do it, so the ego gets nothing out of it.  But this doesn’t mean that it is without value.  “What is the most important thing in our practice?” the Zen master asked a student.  They were outdoors, beside a river.  Wanting to seem a good student, he replied, “To follow the teacher’s instructions to the letter.”  Suddenly the teacher, a burly man, grabbed the young man and held his head under the water for a minute or two.  He pulled him up again and asked the same question.  Coughing and spluttering the student replied, “To study the scriptures.”  The teacher submerged him again, longer this time.  A third time he asked him, “What is the most important thing in our practice?”  “To breathe!” said the student, barely able to speak.  “Correct!” said the teacher.  If you were involved in a serious accident (God forbid), the chances are that you would hear one of the ambulance staff tell you to “breathe, try to relax!”  These would be very meaningful words in that situation.  From the point of view of meditation every moment is a moment of crisis. 

Another word in favour of breathing.  Many processes in the body take place without your conscious effort: the heartbeat, digestive processes, blood circulation….  Other processes, such as walking, gesturing, talking (we hope), require your conscious effort.  But breathing, somehow, overlaps the two.  It continues even when you are asleep, yet you are able to control it to some degree.  It is like a place from where you can see two worlds – both of them within your own body.  We live too much in the conscious world: thinking, plotting, arguing (even with ourselves when there’s no one else around).  Placing all your attention on your breathing gives you a break from that, and an insight into that far more extensive world – a world that extends outwards from you to contain everything, a world in which you are part of everything. 

And another word in favour of breathing.  The breath you breathed a minute ago is useless to you now; likewise the breath you are going to breathe a minute into the future.  Breathing is always now – this breath.  We live too much in the past and the future; they are most people’s favourite holiday resorts.  No-one likes to be told he is living in the past… but if someone says you are living in the future you would take it as a great compliment.  Yet the future is even more unreal than the past.  The only real moment is the present moment.  To indicate to you that I'm not making this stuff up, here’s a brief quote from Meister Eckhart (1260-1328): “There exists only the present instant… a Now which is always and endlessly new.  There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”  Placing all your attention on your breathing helps to keep you in the present; it is like an anchor, keeping you from going on the rocks on one side or the other. 

Yes, there’s a lot to say about breathing, but it is necessary to say it only when we have been ignoring its significance.  The word ‘spirituality’ comes from the Latin ‘spirare’, which means ‘to breathe’.  A friend of mine was present at her 100-year-old mother’s death.  She described that last breath with such feeling… it will stay with her for life.  “Short breaths,” she said, “then a long breath… and then total peace; she was gone.”  From the point of view of meditation, every breath is your last – that particular breath will never happen again. 

Don’t kill meditation for yourself, PJ.  It could become the most important thing in your life, as it has for many. 



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