Machiavelli, the archetypical politician, said that the ‘most difficult thing is to change the order of things’. It is a typical western idea, a left-brain habit of mind, to assume that we should and could change things. It is the game of politics without wisdom that we are all disillusioned with by now. Somehow, though, we take it for granted that if we have a strong enough will, if we are clever and have a bit of luck, we can do anything. We can control things.
East and West today have met, crossed over each other several times and in many ways blended, at least for certain classes of society. But there remain some typical Eastern assumption and mind-sets that offer great challenges to the western mind. One of these is to allow oneself to be changed, into something better, by accepting the way things are going, going with the flow rather than changing the course of the river by explosives and heavy engineering. Being still rather than impulsively interfering. Being rather than doing.
Either approach carries a price. The activist, will-centred attempt to change the order of things can be frustrating and offer only short-lived victories. The contemplative approach demands a training of the mind and emotions through a continuous practice of attention. Change begins within before it affects the external world. The price for this is higher because the change involved is authentic and enduring. It demands a condition called pure prayer, of ‘complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.’
I was talking with someone recently who was facing this price. Someone had told him that when strong forces arise during meditation and stop you from saying the mantra, it was alright to choose to take the attention off the mantra. Or, if you are saying it and become blocked, you stop saying it, identify and name the distraction responsible before returning to the mantra. The advice of the school of meditation we follow advises us to simply say the mantra and return to it, not to stop to label the distraction.
If you don’t know what saying the mantra means (to see the mantra as a happy Lent), this distinction might seem like spiritual hair-splitting. In a way it is, the distinction is so fine. But, if you do know what the mantra is, you will see the point of the fine difference. You will sense its importance to the kind of practice and experience that meditation will be for you. I think it also makes a difference to the kind of change it produces.
I am not saying one way is good and the other evil. One should never diminish or disrespect another person’s practice. There are many tracks winding up the hill of truth. But I think it is important to see that complete simplicity means a shift of attention from the power of the fixed will to the power of the flow. To stop and resume the will’s work of labelling and naming is not the end of the world but it is a stopping of the train. Even when a train is slowed down it is still moving. There will be time enough, when you get to the next station (after the meditation period), to review what caused the slowdown. But again, don’t spend so much time doing this that you miss the train when it starts again.
Letting go of our ego-centric will in complete simplicity is the first, and continuously repeated, step of the journey. We are always setting out and once started , why stop?