[Meditation practical?]

Dear Donagh,

I do a bit of meditation….  There’s a group meeting I attend whenever I get a chance – or to be honest, when I feel like it.  I think they’re on to something, it’s hard to say what it is.  It seems a bit out of this world to me – very far removed from work and family and paying bills.  Can you assure me that it is for sensible people who have a lot of things to do?  I'd be only too happy to drop it completely if thought I was wasting my time…. Thanks.  Tom   

Dear Tom,

Yes, meditation is a bit “out of this world,” as you say.  It is like navigating by the north star, which is reliable because it is out of this world: it always shows north, no matter which way we turn.  In our topsy-turvy world meditation is a sure help. 

What kind of help? 

The north star was never just for gazing at in an abstract manner.  Sailors depended on it for navigating their ships.  Just imagine: if you were in a fierce storm at night, tossed about on the waves like a cork, the north star would begin to have a very practical meaning for you. 

Here on land, meditation has a similarly practical meaning.  It is about orientation, it is about taking steps in a sensible direction.  Think of all the ‘practical’ people who spend their lives on foolish or even destructive projects.  There are probably tens of thousands of practical people working in munitions factories around the world, who seldom if ever have a qualm about the meaning of their work.  The fact that some piece of behaviour is practical is no guarantee that it is right or sensible. 

Meditation is the background to everything we do. If a background seems less interesting to us than a foreground, it is because we have chosen to be more interested in the foreground.  If we focus intensely on a foreground object, the background obligingly fades from view.  In this way we keep our eyes on the ground, like sheep, and we nibble ourselves astray.  When background is ignored, there is no perspective and no direction.

But when we focus on the background, doesn’t this turn it into a foreground object? 

Yes, if we focus on it in the way we focus on a foreground object. 

What other kind of focusing is there? 

We call it meditation.  Negatively, it means not focusing on any object – neither objects ‘out there’, nor objects (thoughts and images) in the mind.  We all have moments when we do this spontaneously – moments when we are completely absorbed by something.  Meditation is when you allow these moments to extend themselves, and you don’t interfere by hauling up things to think about, or complain about, or worry about…. Positively, when you get the knack of this you will find that you are at home in a different state of mind from your usual one.  Call it a mood, if you wish, or a feeling of spaciousness, a freedom from clutter.  That absence of clutter gives you a sense that you are not separated from anything around you.  Without making an object of it, you have been focusing on the background; you are in a state of meditation. 

It is easier to say this than to do it.  Through the ages, people in different traditions have devised skilful means of discouraging the active mind from keeping you immersed all the time in objects.  Concentrate on your breathing, they advise us; or repeat a mantra…. No doubt the group you attend have gone into these methods. 

No, don’t give it up. Meditation doesn’t look practical, but ultimately it is one of the most practical things you can do.  It will help keep you from getting lost in a train of objects.  It is like looking up and breathing and entering the full space that is yourself.  Then you are properly aligned to receive something from beyond that has no name – because it is not an object. 

I hope I haven't made it sound lofty or obscure.  It is basically down to earth.  Someone approached a meditation teacher once with a lot of questions about reaching higher levels.  He replied, “Forget about levels.  Meditation is all here on the ground.” 


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