Where the Two Seas Meet: Meditation
Transcript of Talk given December 13, 2009 in Tiburon, California
A DVD of this talk is available: Where the Two Seas Meet: Meditation
Click here for transcript of Questions and Answers from this Event.
Beginning of Talk:
I will begin by a short quotation from Muhâsibî, a ninth century Sufi from Baghdad, which was the center of Sufism in its very early days. He said, "Meditation is the chief possession of the mystic, that whereby the sincere and the God-fearing make progress on the journey to God."
Now what is interesting is, that if you study Sufism there is actually not so much mention of meditation. There isn't a description of meditation techniques as, for example, you find in the Upanishads, or you find in Buddhism. In the Sufi manuals--and I am very limited because I don't read Arabic or Persian--but in Sufi manuals you find descriptions of merging, of the path of fanâ leading to baqâ--annihilation leading to abiding in God. I have not found detailed descriptions of meditation practices.
Yet, there is every indication that Sufis practiced meditation. The Sufis talk a lot about the remembrance of God, the remembrance of the heart, about prayer, about reading the Qur'an, for example. And yet, there are these kind of references that suggested that they did practice meditation, although the meditation techniques are not described.
There is a beautiful story of Bâyazîd Bastâmî who was one of these very early Sufis who went into incredible states of Oneness with God, and deep states of intoxication:
Bâyazîd Bastâmî was sitting at the feet of his teacher when he was suddenly asked, "Bâyazîd, fetch me that book from the window."
"The window? Which window?" asked Bâyazîd.
"Why?" said the Master. "You've been coming here all this time and did not see the window?"
"No." replied Bâyazîd, "What have I got to do with the window? When I am before you I close my eyes to everything else. I have not come to stare about."
"Since that is so," said the Teacher, "go back to Bastam. Your work is completed."
So this kind of singleness, this kind of one-pointedness that doesn't look to one side or the other, is an attribute of meditation, is an attribute of this quality of inner focus that belongs to meditation.
I should first explain my personal preferences, that I am completely addicted to meditation. I think meditation is the most wonderful thing that has been given to humanity that anybody could ever do. I've been meditating probably two or three hours a day for forty years, and I think it is extraordinary. Each meditation is still completely new, is completely different. One never knows what's going to happen. Yes, there are periods when one just does one's practice and not much happens. Then there are other times one is taken into unexpected states of consciousness.
Because it seems to me that, in a way, the purpose of meditation, the reason this technique, this spiritual technique, which is what it is, has been given to humanity is to give us access--direct access--to higher states of consciousness. It's as simple as that. It is a technique. It is a method of going beyond the attention of the mind, which is caught up in the things of this world--in the continual distractions and images that come to us in waking consciousness--so that we can have direct access to, not just a higher state of consciousness, but higher states of consciousness. That's what I want to try and expand on today.
My own first experience of meditation was of a Zen practice when I was sixteen. I was an English boarding school student, and suddenly I discovered a Zen meditation practice. I closed my eyes, and I went into this state of complete emptiness, or nothingness, that was described in this Zen handbook. Suddenly, I had a real experience of a completely other reality, beyond the mind, that was much vaster, that was much emptier, that was much more dynamic than anything I had ever experienced. It opened the door to a world that is actually around us all the time, but from which our normal state of consciousness has banished us, or keeps us separated from.
In a way, since then, I've never looked back, because it seems that to explore consciousness--to explore states of consciousness, while still living in this world--is the most wonderful thing one can do. Because you begin to have access, as far as I can see, to what it really means to be a human being.
And why it is that in India these techniques were documented so clearly, in such a detailed way, while in Middle Eastern Sufism they were not documented. . .? Again, I do not read Persian, I don't read Arabic, so there may be techniques hidden in a library in Cairo or Alexandria that give detailed instructions on Sufi meditation practices. But in our particular path, the Naqshbandi path to which I belong, that went in the 17th century to India, and as far as I can see, in India it then adapted and developed some Indian meditation techniques.
Yet if you read between the lines, or if you know what you are looking for, even in these early masters like Muhâsibî or Bâyazîd Bastâmî, it is obvious that in the early days of Sufism meditation was practiced. So that is the groundwork from which I want to develop.
As I say, the first, important thing is to realize it is a technique to go beyond the mind with its constant chatter that cuts one off from other levels of consciousness, from other levels of Reality. Behind that, there is the whole tradition and esoteric knowledge that human beings can function on many different levels of consciousness, but one needs to have techniques to open one to those levels of consciousness.
Now in Sufism, unlike, for example, in Buddhism, the central theme is this relationship of lover and Beloved. That is the core, the essence of Sufism, that Sufism is a love affair with God. Whether you call the Beloved He, She, It, is irrelevant--it's a love affair. I often use the term "He" because I find it difficult to have a love affair with an "It."
I might just add now, because I've brought up this subject that some people have asked me, "Now why do you use ‘He' to refer to God, to refer to the Beloved?" There is a very personal reason, which is that my first direct experiences of what I can only call the Beloved, I was actually in a state of feminine receptivity. It is said, "The soul is always feminine before God," and the Beloved came to me as a masculine energy that pierced me, like the beautiful Bernini sculpture of St. Theresa of Avila, in which there's this arrow piercing her heart. That is how I experienced it.
That imprint has always stayed with me, a bit like the first kiss you ever had remains with you for the rest of your life. So for me, even though I have experienced the Beloved in a feminine quality, full of tenderness, full of caring, in those very, very tender qualities, it is that first impression that stays with me. When I close my eyes and I just go inwardly to my Beloved, there is this imprint of a masculine presence.
So that's why I usually refer to God as "He." It has nothing to do with any patriarchal imprint or conditioning. It's actually the reverse. It has to do with my experience of being in a state of feminine receptivity before God, and experiencing that primal energy as a masculine power that pierced right through me.
But, as I said, fundamental to Sufism is the relationship of lover and Beloved, and if you're going to have this relationship, you need a place for this relationship to take place. You need a place that is uncluttered as possible. It's something very simple: if you're inviting somebody you love, for example, into your house, you don't leave the garbage out. You actually prepare a place for this meeting; you prepare a place for lover and Beloved, to quote Mahmûd Shabistarî,
Go, sweep out the dwelling room of your heart.
Prepare it to be the abode and home of the Beloved.
When you go out He will come in.
Within you, when you are free from self
He will show His beauty.
You prepare a place for this meeting.
This meeting, as any mystic knows, is the most precious thing you have, because it is the direct experience of God. This is always the difference between the mystic, or the esoteric, and the exoteric, the religious person. As Jâmî said, "Why listen to second-hand reports when you can hear the Beloved speak Himself?"
Mysticism is about direct experience, and we all are entitled to that direct experience with God. But one needs to have a place where it can take place. For the Sufi it is in the heart, in the consciousness of the heart. One has to learn how to be in that consciousness of the heart.
The first thing is to clear away all of those everyday thoughts, all of that garbage, all of that continual chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, and all of the distractions, all of the images. You really don't want it getting in the way of this relationship. So, in a way, at the beginning meditation is creating a space where you can listen and be with God consciously.
We are all with God all the time, that's one of the mystical truths: there is nothing other than God. But the path of gnosis, the path of direct experience has to do with becoming conscious of this relationship, so it becomes an ongoing love affair that gets deeper and deeper, and involves communication. It involves talking to God and also listening to God, and creating a space where you can listen to God, where this extraordinary dialog of your soul and God can take place.
He often doesn't speak in a loud voice, He doesn't always come banging on the door. Often He speaks very quietly. He whispers to you about the secrets of your own soul, and the secrets of Love. It's very beautiful when you are told in your heart about those secrets, and you hear them. But you have to learn to listen, and that means learning to still the mind, learning to put away all of those everyday thoughts. This is one of the first steps in meditation. You create inward space within your heart, within your mind, where you can be with God, where you can listen to God. It can be done.
In our Western culture have given enormous importance to the mind. We live in a mental culture. We're educated to develop the mind. The mind is what is valued. When you really begin mystical life, you begin to see another truth. You begin to see that there is another form of consciousness that is not about thinking. It doesn't mean you can't understand it, because there is an understanding of the heart. This is one of the things one develops in Sufism--this understanding of the heart. But it involves receptivity, it involves listening. These are, of course, feminine qualities.
Maybe I should say at the beginning, there are different forms of meditation. There is a type of directed meditation where you focus your attention on a word, for example, or on a prayer. Or there are actually very, very detailed Buddhist meditations where you do visualizations. But in Sufism, it is really about being receptive, it is about listening, it's about creating an empty space. In that way it's a little bit closer to certain forms of Zen meditation; you just create an empty space.
It's nearest equivalent in the West, as far as I've come across, is the meditation practice by St. Teresa of Avila, which was called at the time, "the prayer of Quiet," which has to do with Divine receptivity. You create a space of being receptive to God, of waiting for God. She had to be very careful about who she said this to, because the church at the time was concerned that you actually just said verbal prayers. They didn't like the idea that might actually experience God. But this was "the prayer of Quiet," which has to do with Divine receptivity.
As Sufism is about learning to make a relationship with God, you learn to be receptive. You learn to wait. You learn to be attentive. You learn to listen. You learn to listen to a very different vibration, or a very different language that has to do with the vibration of the soul. It's feminine, because the soul is always feminine before God; it's one of the mystical secrets that the patriarchal culture pushed to one side. It is about a state of Divine receptivity.
Rûmî, of course, put this very beautifully. He said,
Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else's. You are--we all are--the beloved of the Beloved, and in every moment, in every event of your life, the Beloved is whispering to you exactly what you need to hear and know. Who can ever explain this miracle? It simply is. Listen and you will discover it every passing moment. Listen, and your whole life will become a conversation in thought and act between you and Him, directly, wordlessly, now and always.(1)
That is very, very beautiful--learning to listen so you can engage in this continual conversation with God, with the Beloved. You are always the beloved of the Beloved.
Later you come to discover how it's actually going on all the time. One of the truths is that while this inner listening begins in the meditation practice--when you close the door and you go in silence within, later, it remains with you when you open the door. It stays with you when you walk down the street. You don't have to just always close the door, because you create a space inside of you, or you learn to be with the space inside of you that is always listening, always attentive to God.
So, in a way, what you practice when you meditate becomes then a walking meditation, then a continual conversation with the unseen, with the unknown, that can take place in any moment of the day. It's one of those spiritual secrets that you then are always listening, always attentive. It's called "the ear of the heart." The Sufis talk about "the eye of the heart," and "the ear of the heart." You are always inwardly listening to God, to the hint from God, to the voice from God.
There comes a time, you know it is said, "First you do the meditation, then it does you." There comes a time when you can be standing in line at the store, and suddenly you are taken out of yourself and you are with God. You are just sitting in the bus; suddenly you are somewhere else--you are at the feet of your Beloved.
That's when meditation takes you into itself and it becomes, not something you do, but something that is done to you. Because, it is about really learning how to be in the presence of God.
You can do that with prayer, yes. Though the real prayer is a prayer of silence, is a prayer of just being receptive, of listening to God. It is the prayer of Quiet. It is a way to be with God.
As I say, you take that practice out of sitting in silence to being inwardly always in a state of receptivity, in a state of listening, in a state of attention, so you can hear what the Beloved has to say to you, if He wants to say anything. So you can be part of this continual conversation of Lover and Beloved that is really the undercurrent of life.
There are all the surface engagements in life which our culture has mastered so well, that belong to the ego and the mind. Then there is this undercurrent in life that has to do with the soul, and has to do with the purpose of the soul's incarnation. It is learning how to be present with that, how to breathe with that, to listen to that, how to live with that, how to love with that.
That is, I think, one of the initially very important aspects of a meditation practice that is maybe not so well understood. It isn't just sitting in silence. Yes, you learn how to be in silence at the beginning--to close off the telephone, to have no outer noise--so you can learn inwardly how to listen. Then you find you are in this other space that is quite different to the space of waking consciousness.
I can tell you when I was 16 and in boarding school and sat down and suddenly found I was in this other space that I never even knew existed, it was wonderful! It was real liberation. It was really waking up. That space then permeated the outer world. It brought into the outer world a quality of magic, a quality of beauty, a quality of light, that I never knew existed. It was this in-breathing and out-breathing that has to with prayer, that has to do with meditation, that has to do with being in the presence of God. So that is this learning how to be in silence so you can listen to God, first in meditation and then in daily life.
Although, from a very simple perspective to have some time every day when you can just go within and say to the Beloved, "Do You have anything to say to me today? Is there anything I need to hear today? Is there any way that I can be of service to You today?"
Maybe most of the time you get no answer; you just sit there. Then there are those times when, just as you're coming out of meditation, a thought slips into your consciousness. I always know when it comes from somewhere else because it has no relationship to any thought I was thinking or anything that had been in my mind before. Maybe it just says, "Oh, that person needs your attention," or "This person is in trouble," or "You should write to this person," or "Don't go there today," or "Don't book that plane ticket."
So, every day you can just have a time just to say to the Beloved--because, yes, there does come a time when even when you're in the supermarket, even when the television is on, you can hear the voice of God. But that's much, much later. Initially you need to create a time, a space, where your whole attention is being receptive. It is, "What do you want from me today, Beloved? Is there anything?" Or, "I have this problem. I don't know what to do about this. Please help me." You can say that in the beginning of your meditation, and then maybe you get an answer, maybe you get some help, maybe your prayer is answered . . . somebody looks kindly on you and gives some help.
From a very practical point of view, just to have some time to be alone with the Boss is very useful. It is not highly esoteric. I suppose for some people they do it by going to church because there is music, or there is silence. But I prefer to be always in church. I prefer to carry that space with me wherever I am, and to always have time every day. I mean, eventually, you are always with God consciously. But at the beginning you need just to set some time aside. "This is just time for us." Because it's a real relationship.
I had an event in 2008 together with Fr. Thomas Keating(2) who, as some of you know, has helped to bring contemplative practice back into Christianity. He's in his 80s now. He said that he really needs two hours a day just to be alone with God; two hours a day, at least, just to do this inner prayer, just to be alone with God.
Of course, people have busy lives; most people don't have that amount of time. But most of us can find twenty minutes to shut off the mind, to put aside all those thoughts. Yes, it takes a bit of time, a few years I suppose, to put aside that chatter, that the mind is always . . . one thing after another . . . but just to have some time every day, just for that. That is, I think, the first step in meditation, just a time to be with God.
Now, that is only one aspect of meditation. I should say that the particular meditation that we practice, called the "Heart Meditation," or "Dhyana Meditation," came from India. Sufism adapts to the time and the place and the people, and in India our particular lineage adapted this Heart Meditation, this way of working in meditation with the heart chakra, and with the state of dhyana.
If you actually study yoga, you will know that there are eight levels in yoga. The seventh is dhyana and the eighth is samadi, the superconscious state, full conscious awakening on the plane of the Self. The first few are Right Behavior, Right Attitude, Right Posture, which you practice in Hatha Yoga, for example.
So on its journey from the Middle East into India it adapted this dhyana meditation, which is a way of really relaxing into the heart. It's very simple. You just relax into the heart, into the Love within the heart, because Love is incredibly powerful. You allow the heart to do everything. It's a practice of surrender. Sufism is really about surrender. You surrender yourself, of course. You surrender the ego. But in meditation you surrender the mind into the heart; you put your mind into the heart.
Eventually there is this moment where the heart absorbs the mind. The Sufis have this expression, "The mind is hammered into the heart." There is this moment when the mind is just gone. At the beginning you don't even know it's happened because you have no mind. But it is, strictly speaking, the first experience in this incarnation you have ever had of the mind not functioning. Because, even when you are asleep the mind dreams and is active. But in that moment of dhyana, the mind is gone. Where it is has gone is the unanswered question. They say that the individual mind is absorbed into the universal mind. All you know is that you don't know. You don't even know, initially, that you don't know. The mind has just gone.
Later it becomes completely intoxicating--just not to be here for a moment, not to be here. Then, of course, it gets deeper and deeper. You can go off for an hour, you can go off for two hours, and you're just gone. It's the first time in this life you have been completely free from this outer world of forms and images, and you become absorbed somewhere else.
Sufism is about absorption. You are absorbed by Love. Love draws you into itself.
Remember in the first talk I gave(3), for those of you who weren't here, I talked about this place where "the two seas meet," this whole esoteric meaning of being in the place where the two seas meet. I said there is the sea of our human experience--all of our troubles and feelings and happiness, all of what we call it means to be a human being. Then there is the sea of Divine consciousness, the sea of the Divine.
The first step, really, is to learn how to be at this place where the two seas meet, so you can experience the Divine ocean, so you can experience this other sea that really takes you into the ocean of Oneness, takes you back into love, takes you into these states of absorption with God, however you describe them.
In the story in the Qur'an, it is Moses who had to find the place where the two seas meet to meet with Khidr, who is the figure of mystical experience. I think that meditation is a way to be in that place where the two seas meet.
Because one thing you realize once you go deep into meditation is how you are taken by God to God. You don't do anything. This is not a path of effort. Because how can there be an effort with Divine things? You don't know how to get back to God. You don't know how to become lost in Love. You don't know how to get absorbed in the ocean of Divine Oneness. But you can be at that place where the Divine sea comes crashing into conscious existence and then takes you back like the tide, takes you deeper and deeper into this other ocean, into this ocean of the Divine, into this extraordinary reality that exists beyond the mind and all its thoughts. You can call it the ocean of Love.
That is, for me, really, when mystical life becomes real. All of your practices, all of your effort--you have been sitting there maybe for five, six years and nothing has happened--and then there is this sweetness within the heart when you come out of meditation, or a moment of bliss. What is it that has touched you? What is it that has taken you?
Then you begin to get caught by this current of Love, and there are currents of Love. Because it is That that takes you back to God, not your effort, not your "I should do this or that," because that's about you. But to be in a place where you can first be receptive to the voice of God, but then to go deeper and to give yourself to the tide of this ocean that comes from the beyond and takes souls back to God.
In our heart meditation this begins with states of dhyana when you are just lost. You come back and you don't know where you have been. You're just gone. It is really the first taste of this incredible secret of what it means to be a human being, because most of the time we live just on the surface.
I often think how this world is a metaphor or an image of what is True. In this physical world the topsoil is just a very thin surface that we live on. When you begin to access mystical consciousness you realize how most of the time we live just on the very surface of this Divine universe, of this consciousness. Then you begin to get taken deeper into it.
This is where meditation becomes really a living presence. You are drawn into it. It takes you. Not every day, of course. I remember how it was for me in my early twenties when that became really a living reality for me. I would allow myself an hour a day and I would close the door of the room and lie down, and just go off, and come back.
You begin to breathe another oxygen; you begin to breathe another air. That's why, for me, it has become so completely addictive. As I say, I've been meditating two or three hours a day for over forty years and it's completely addictive because you go somewhere and you breathe a different air. You breathe this pure Love. You breathe this Presence. There you begin to stretch, you begin to relax, because this world is so cramped. Here you have to behave, you have to have proper thoughts, and people asking you questions, and you have to explain yourself . . . You have to work.
There, you relax. You get rid of those clothes . . . They begin to fall off you, those thought-forms, those clothes, those identities, and everything you've carried for so long. You begin to relax and to stretch and to breathe this other air. Then slowly, over the years in this meditation, you begin to wake up.
In this particular path it is said there are seven levels of dhyana and then there are seven levels of samadhi. Samadhi is superconscious state. The last level of dhyana is the first level of samadhi, in which you begin to have a sense of being in meditation. You begin to feel, "Oh, I am," or "Something is," or "It is." A state of being. You just are. You don't know what you are, but there is a sense of being, and it feels really good because it's not being in relationship to anything.
When we're brought up we have to be this in relationship to our parents, and this in relationship to our school teachers, then this in relationship to our boss. It's always such an effort. I always think being a human being is such an effort. But there you just are. "Oh, I just am. Isn't it good?" You just feel it. It goes through your body. It just feels so good.
Then slowly, slowly this miracle of . . . really, which is I suppose, when meditation begins really to take off . . . when you begin to become conscious in another level of reality. I say "another level of reality" because that's just language. It's actually much more elemental. It's much more real. It's much more how things are. You can call it Oneness, if you like, you can call it Love. It's all there. It's just our mind stops us from experiencing it. You begin to wake up in meditation. The clouds begin to part. These are all metaphors. These are all just images for this deepening mystical experience of who you are, what you are.
It's so simple. I always like that line from T. S. Eliott. He talks about "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything." You discover that in meditation. You're not this complicated person at all. You're just a place of Oneness, a place of Love.
What is interesting, is that what you experience in meditation begins to come back, get reflected into everyday life. That other consciousness--at the beginning you just sense it in meditation--then you begin to feel it around you in waking life. It is as if this other consciousness woke up inside of you. Through meditation you gave a space to it, you became familiar to it, you learned how to be with it. It likes to live in this world; it isn't just for meditation. You begin to see the Oneness that's all around you, the simplicity of everything and this quality of being that belongs to everybody and everything. It begins to flow into this world. As I say, the two seas meet and the Divine consciousness comes into this consciousness, and flows into this consciousness.
There are the classical Zen images of the path, the Ox Herding Pictures, which describe the stages of the journey. One stage is pictured as an empty circle. It's just a circle. Everything is present--because there inside of you everything is present--and meditation gives you access to it. What more can you want?
You can say it's a way of being with God, and sometimes you feel a Divine Presence, and sometimes you just feel Love. Then, of course, sometimes the mind comes back. It says, "Oh you think you can meditate." It comes back with all sorts of thoughts. But once you've stepped over that threshold, once dhyana begins to absorb you, once this other current has taken you, you can't go back. Because there's a much greater force that takes you into this other reality that's all around us, that breathes through you.
Then, of course, the journey goes on. Beyond what we call the Self, beyond this center of Divine consciousness that you get taken into, there is another reality, which you also get drawn into. I found this most beautifully described by Thomas Merton, a Christian mystic who also had a relationship with Sufism:
Desert and void, the uncreated is waste and emptiness to the creature. Not even sand, not even stone, not even darkness and night. A burning wilderness would at least be something. It burns and is wild. But the uncreated is no something. Waste, emptiness, total poverty of the Creator. Yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible, infinite zero. Everything comes from this desert Nothing. Everything wants to return to it and cannot, for who can return nowhere? But for each of us there is a point of nowhereness in the middle of movement, a point of nothingness in the midst of being. The incomparable point, not to be discovered by insight. If you seek it, you do not find it. If you stop seeking it is there. But you must not turn to it. Once you become aware of yourself as Seeker you are lost. But if you are content to be lost, you will be found without knowing it, precisely because you are lost, for you are at last Nowhere.(4)
This, friends, is the uncreated world that is behind creation. If you really want to explore the frontiers of consciousness, I don't see how you can do it except through meditation. I don't see how it is possible, because you need a vehicle to take you to this other reality.
Yes, there are people who awaken in Oneness, just awaken in Oneness. They feel the Oneness inside themselves, the Love that is inside themselves, and see the Oneness around everything else. They feel this center of themselves. I think that if you get there through meditation your consciousness gets adapted to it more easily.
Your consciousness has to be trained how to function in Oneness. After years of meditation what actually happens when you go into meditation is you begin to be permeated by a finer and finer light. That changes your consciousness, it changes the way you think. It actually changes the way your brain works, and it's a gradual process. It's really quite a scientific process, because you can't suddenly wake up in an ocean of light. You become blinded by it.
Through meditation practice the light comes in more and more and more. Even the cells of your brain work differently. I think it's very, very helpful if you want to realize that inner state and then to go beyond that state into the uncreated world, into this vast emptiness that underlies all of existence. I don't know how you can do it without a meditation practice because if you suddenly saw it in full consciousness you would probably go insane right away. To consciously see the uncreated world in front of your eyes while you're present in the physical body would be just a tremendous shock.
So through years of meditation you actually build a vehicle, you build a consciousness, that can experience this Reality--that's strong enough. You get used to it. You get used to traveling in another reality. You get used to these frontiers of consciousness, which to me is what is really, really exciting about being a mystic--that you explore the frontiers of consciousness. They are very, very real, the frontiers of consciousness.
Beyond this created world, even beyond the world of the Self, even beyond the Oneness of Love, there is what is traditionally called the uncreated world, or the world of non-existence, or the world of non-being. I've studied this very, very carefully over twenty years or so, since I first began to experience it, and noticed how at the beginning there is some awareness that you don't exist.
I actually find it the most refreshing awareness that there is, that you don't exist. Maybe I have a strange consciousness; I actually find it an enormous burden to exist. You have to relate to people all the time, and they relate to you. You have to have thoughts. You have to have a purpose. If you're really on the spiritual path, you have to have a spiritual purpose. There you just don't have to exist at all.
It's not a negation. In a sense it's so much more alive, so much more dynamic, and so much more powerful. There is this infinite space and there's nothing there. At the beginning there is this little bit of consciousness that you realize you don't exist, and then you are just gone. Then at the end of the meditation you come back, and you know you've been somewhere where you don't exist. You bring back that memory. You've been abiding in emptiness. It does something really strange, and really wonderful, and a bit crazy to your mind.
It's very real, the uncreated world. That's why I like Thomas Merton's description, there's this "Nowhere," this "Nowhere land." It's actually very, very real. It's much realer than any thoughts, any images. I suppose it must have something to do with either dark energy or dark matter. There's much more of it than existence. There's a lot more of non-existence than there is existence, just like there's more of dark energy or dark matter, particularly dark energy, than there is of anything else. You can become part of that.
I remember one experience I had in which I actually felt it like leaving the planet, except the planet was my ego self. I actually left it. You take off those clothes of existence and you just drop them. You go into this space like the space between the stars. There's so much more freedom there. You can call it "cosmic consciousness," if you like. It doesn't matter what you call it. You go into this emptiness, this vastness, and there's no you anymore to have an experience. I should say that, that part of you got left behind. Really, you are completely free.
Then I remember one of these times, coming back. As I came out of meditation I watched myself coming back into this ego. Suddenly I had anxieties again--this little package of anxieties--where I should worry about this, and I do worry about that, and I'm concerned about the other. I think, "Okay. . . ."
Part of the Sufi practice is to be able to come back. I should say that one of the trainings one has is to be able to come back at any moment of time. Sometimes you have to force yourself to come back because once you go into that world, this is a very strange world, I can tell you. There is this image that Plato has in the cave story about the person who has left the cave. Inside the cave everybody is chained up and betting on shadows, which is what happens in this world. Then you go out and there's this whole world of sunlight out there, and it's very, very beautiful. It's real sunlight, the sunlight of Divine consciousness. It's incredibly beautiful. Then you come back into this cave and you can't see anything because you're used to the sunlight. You look at all these people and they're betting on shadows on the wall. You say, "Hey, there's a whole world outside there!" But they're not the slightest bit interested. Then, you know, if you're not careful you can think you're completely crazy. But, you have to be able come back, even if this world looks a little odd when you come back.
To share my own experience, I get two or three hours a day when I can go there. The rest of the time, you know . . . I have an odd job description because I'm a spiritual teacher, and I can tell you it's the weirdest job description that I think exists in the Western world. It's very, very, very odd, for reasons I won't go into now. . . . But then I come back and there are emails to write, lectures to prepare, people to meet--all of the stuff that we call life, which exists just on this very, very, very surface, and you know there is this whole other reality.
Sometimes when people come to me, and I see there is something in them that either knows or wants to know that whole other reality that's around them, that's like the air they breathe--that's why it's like the fish trying to discover water. But what can you say? "Sit there for ten years . . ."
I think the most important thing is that at the beginning it's effort. It's why I liked St. Teresa's stages of prayer when I read them, because it's so much like my experience in Sufism. She uses the image of the gardener working in the garden and watering the garden, how first you have to carry the water from the well and water the garden, all the effort you have to do for the first few years of sitting in meditation to still the mind, and just to learn to do that practice, that way of being empty, being in a space with God.
But then in the fourth stage of prayer it just rains. That's how the garden is watered: it just rains. You don't make any effort anymore, because you are at this place where the two seas meet. This Divine current, this other energy source, just comes and takes you when it wants to take you. Sometimes when you sit there nothing happens; you do your half an hour and you still the mind a bit. Other times you are just taken and you can be taken to so many other levels of Reality. You begin to explore what it really means to be a human being, what it really means to be alive. Human beings have been given this secret. If you read the Upanishads you realize that people have been meditating for a very, very long time.
I never teach meditation, by the way. I've never, ever taught meditation because what I discovered . . . I mean, yes, we have a meditation practice, and I'll explain it to you in a moment and then we can sit for half an hour . . . but I've discovered, in the end, that everybody makes it their own. There's a saying in the Qur'an, "Every being has his own mode of prayer and glorification." I discovered that we each have our own way of being with God, we each have our own way of stilling the mind. For example, in Sufism some people use the dhikr at the beginning of their meditation to still them. Some people use the image of the teacher. Some people just allow themselves to be absorbed in Love and there's nothing left.
There are manuals about everything, manuals about how to make love to your partner. But you can't really make love according to a manual. And in the meditation of the heart you open your heart to God and you say, "You show me how you want me to be with You." Yes, I'm going to sit here. I'm going to be quiet. I'm going to put aside my thoughts and I'm just going to go into my heart because that's where, in Sufism, the Lover and the Beloved meet. But, "You take me," because, in the end, one is taken. Just as you are taken by God back to God, you are taken in meditation. You are absorbed. You are in this other current. Probably, the only effort one has to do initially is to surrender to that other current, and it can be frightening--I will say that.
I remember the first year or two when I started to go into dhyana. At the beginning, the mind got frightened, because the mind is used to its own existence, and the mind doesn't like to give up. It has its own patterns of control, and it was frightened. Then eventually it realized that it was going to come back at the end; it wasn't going to go completely. You weren't going to go completely crazy. Then it kind of says, "Okay," and it surrenders.
The Sufi path it is about surrender. You surrender to Love. You surrender to God. In meditation you surrender yourself also. You surrender your consciousness. You surrender that most precious thing you have, your own consciousness. You give it to the heart. You give it to Love. You give it to God. Then it takes you. It takes you first to this Oneness within the heart, to this consciousness of Pure Being--what you are before you are. Then it takes you beyond to the uncreated world, into the darkness in which you get completely lost and completely absorbed. Then, probably, the journey goes on beyond there. There are realities beyond and there are realities beyond. So meditation is really just a way to be with God, so He can be with you, so He can show you His secrets.
That is what Sufism is about; it's about being open to being shown the secrets of God, whatever God is. We call Him the Beloved because it's about Love. It's very intimate, and it is also completely, completely Other. Somewhere is it is our birth-right; it belongs to us. Those who are drawn to mysticism are those who are drawn to reclaim this birth-right, to reclaim this heritage of what a human being's consciousness is really capable of experiencing. I don't think there's anything more worthwhile doing in this world, unless you are drawn into a path of service, of just being in service to other human beings. To be open to these infinite, inner worlds, these other realities that are also here--they not anywhere else. One needs a way to get there, that's all. One needs to open a little doorway within the heart to be at this place where the two seas meet, so that other ocean can take you, and then bring you back, and then take you, and then bring you back.
So I explain, for those who don't know, I explain the meditation we do. But, as I say, you have your own way of being in silence with God.
Every meditation practice is a way to still the mind and this is a way of using Love to still the mind. You just go within your heart, within the feeling quality of your heart, to where Love is present. You Love something. It can be your partner. It can be your cat. It can be God. It doesn't matter. When you go into this place of Love, you just put all of yourself into the Love. You put all of yourself into your heart. Then when thoughts come, which they do, you just put the thoughts back into the Love. You put the thoughts into the Love. You drown the mind in the heart. You drown the mind in Love. When thoughts come you just put them into the heart. You don't try to stop them. You just put the thoughts into your heart. So we just do that for half an hour.
End of Talk
(1)Trans. Andrew Harvey, Light upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi, p. 99.
(2)See the online video: "Oneness and the Heart of the World", Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and Father Thomas Keating, recorded May 2008.
(3)See earlier talk "An Introduction to Sufism" from the DVD series "Where the Two Seas Meet."
(4)84, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton.