Here, I hope, is the connection with Lent from yesterday.
I was recently meditating with a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful branch of public medicine. They are an extraordinarily generous and compassionate collection of individuals who form a powerfully supportive team of professional friendship. They also really want to meditate. They express their motivation differently but it is, not surprisingly, related to the dangers inherent in their work. Dangers such as burnout (shutting down internally, while going through the motions on the surface) or even various forms of self-harm, from losing the balance of the personal and professional aspects of their lives or the physical and psychological consequences of unmanaged stress.
Most also struggle with finding time to meditate. This struggle shows them how meditation leads to self-knowledge even in the learning process itself. We understand and see ourselves better when we fail to do what we want to do. Of course, this may lead us to give up. But, more positively, it may help us review our goals, to overcome our resistance or just to manage time more sensibly. Most people admit they could find the time to meditate if they set their mind to it.
Similarly, our Lenten observance encourages self-knowledge, whether we are satisfied with our measure of observance or not. This self-knowledge leads to what the desert teachers called ‘discretion’. Nothing is more important than discretion on the spiritual path we refer to as ‘life’. It obeys the eternal laws of things without falling into the trap of being legalistic. That is why the teachers of the desert said that acquiring self-knowledge is more important than the ability to work miracles.
The purer level of self-knowledge, however, is what I wrote about yesterday as the experience that cannot be experienced. Does this sound rather astral and esoteric? Not if you listened to the medics who are learning to meditate. We were speaking about stillness – of body and mind – as an essential element of meditation. I asked if any of them had experienced stillness. Up till then they had spoken of their meditation largely in terms of distraction and failure. But, given a little push, some of them acknowledged that they had glimpsed, for a fleeting moment, what stillness meant. Almost immediately they began to think about this experience and, of course, it was lost.
Most of what we call experience is simply memory, the impression left by a pure moment in which we were freed from our usual self-consciousness. The experience in itself is an unveiling that takes down the structures of time in our thought and imagination. It is purely present. As soon as we call it an experience it recedes. Over time, our memory of it fades and often becomes inaccurate. Only the pure experience ultimately matters. It cannot be repeated at will, but we can always be open to it. Our ungrasping openness is faith. As faith strengthens so does the awareness of the continuous presence, even if we are not actually in the experience.
The doctors are on a time-limited introduction to meditation. Like Lent the time-limit gives us the incentive and the discipline to wriggle free of time and to touch the present.