“Stick to the image.”
That iconic statement by my late uncle, the philosopher and Jungian psychologist James Hillman, takes me back to my early efforts, sitting and trying to meditate. I used to sit cross-legged uncomfortably and think, “I’m gonna do this now. Time to meditate. Here we go, sitting half-lotus. Here I am, meditating…meditating.” I’d keep my eyes closed tight and wonder when it was going to happen. Whatever it was. The image I held in my mind was of myself, sitting and trying to meditate. Naturally, it didn’t work.
Most of you reading this have probably already had the kind of breakthrough that’s allowed you to go beyond the self-centred ruminations I suffered when I started out. If you’re anything like I was, it may have taken a little while to get past that stage. It may have taken something—or a combination of somethings.
For me, it meant slowly formulating three ways that I could effectively, if only temporarily, escape the incessant demands of my “normal,” semi-conscious stream of thought. Then, after I’d practiced those three ways enough, I began to recognize how the imagery I employed with each approach began to merge together, within my meditative practice.
It’s said in gnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom, that “the intellect is a ladder that can be used to transcend itself.” And that’s what I needed at first, an intellectual entry point to the meditative state. But that’s just me. I can be guilty of thinking too much. So I had to sit and recognize my thinking as being a simple, ongoing process that was always available to me, rather than as the self-defining narration of every instant of my life.
I used that old image of me sitting in a theatre in my mind, watching my thoughts parade across the screen, narrated by some anonymous spokesperson who jumped from important point to point, like a haphazard newsreel. I was able to become an audience member—which was a start—but I needed something more concise, more organic, if I was going to use my thinking to transcend my thinking. As can pretty reliably happen, nature showed me a way.
I was sitting by a river where there were a lot of little flying insects, tightly swarming. Suddenly, a flock of swallows appeared, gracefully wheeling and sweeping through the insect cloud, snapping up gnats in an incredible choreography of avian aerobatics. I realized that my gnatty little thoughts could be swept up by more purposeful, more elegant thoughts. Then the flock of swallows passed, and I sat there, simply a witness to the swirling inner process of nature that is my thinking. I had to become the witness, before anything else.
“To be free of thoughts that distract one from yoga, thoughts of an opposite kind must be cultivated.” – The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.33
Another way I practiced at first, was to observe my mechanical, physical process of breathing. Of course, the point in having you sit and count your breaths is that it gets you to just shut up and sit, and to practice sitting. Then I happened to read Pema Chodron, about what she called tonglen meditation, and it added a powerful emotional image to an otherwise rather dry undertaking. I breathed in my anxiety and breathed out serenity. I breathed in frustration, and breathed out compassion. I breathed in a dark, troubled red, and breathed out a lush, easy aquamarine.
While I sat, breathing in and out with my eyes closed, I couldn’t help but notice that play of energetic activity inside of my closed eyelids. What was that dancing, fluctuating, effervescence? That kind of subtle, vibrational storm—undulating, coalescing, alive? Then, when I coupled that optical awareness with my controlled breathing, I could actually see my changing internal energies—a calming of the inner, electric ocean that carried my stream of thoughts and connected me to everything. Naturally, immersed in these largely physical experiences, my thoughts held very little importance.
Finally, as I became the witness to my thinking, and to my amazing internal processes, in that place I found I became more and more aware of not being alone. There was the smile of a benevolent, eternal presence within me, all the time. It may have been an indigenous forefather. Or a lovely angel, who had saved me from my personal precipice so many times. It was the huge heart of Gandhi; the compassion of Jesus; the omniscient understanding of Krishna. I remembered a Buddhist meditation where you sit, directly facing the Buddha, and mirror–in sequence–the differently colored energies of the master’s chakras.
In my heart, I identified with the spinning dervishes, recreating Rumi’s search for the lost partner of his soul through the circular landscapes of his heart.I saw the rocking Hasidim, a pointed finger tracing backwards over lines of scripture, oblivious to the life of the subway car. Suddenly, I realized the ecstasy of that devotional focus. The moment of dedication to one true, shared spiritual soul. I had spontaneously stumbled upon that pure, devotional aspect of meditation the other two approaches had made me available to discover.
A witness to my dust-devil thoughts, to the effervescent magic of my very being, to the company (wholly imagined, or absolutely inter-dimensional) of loving, transcendent, eternal spirits carrying me along that river, I realized that I could sit in meditation. That I had been sitting in meditation for quite some time. I was calm, within and without—and best of all, I could find that incomparable sixth sense of freedom and serenity whenever I wanted, whenever I needed.
And I didn’t even have to think about it anymore.