It is hard to meditate when we have a toothache, or are burdened by sadness or anxiety, hunger or even a runny nose. In the days of collective faith people better understood the advice to keep healthy so that they could pray. Today, when we find it hard to get beyond ‘my experience’ as the test and meaning of everything, we come to meditation as a tool for ‘wellness’.
Perhaps the problem is that we have to jump in at the deep end. We have such little good religious or spiritual formation to prepare us for suffering or for the discipline of an other-centred practice like meditation. Yet, having lost so much that gives meaning and balance to life, we have to get in the deep end and start meditating when and for whatever reason we can find. Then eventually, if we persevere, we will find that the experience itself teaches us a pricless lesson: to go beyond our experience.
Say you are meditating regularly. Life is calm and regular and has brightness and promise. Then an affliction – death of a loved one, personal loss, separation or rejection, illness – breaks over your life and an iron bolt enters your soul. You keep meditating because the practice – regardless of what part of the growth cycle you may be in at that time – has worked its way into your skin and biorhythms. You are a meditator now: it is as much part of you as breathing. But when you sit down and try to say the mantra your mind seems worse distracted than on your first day at the job. Trailers from scenes that have not yet happened flash through your imagination. Anxiety, grief, anger, sadness are let loose and like a gang of thugs they invade your inner room and wreck your ordered personal space.
You know it’s happening and that it will pass. But when? There are moments, like a sunny interval on a stormy day, when you find yourself in the peace of the Lord and you know that joy is ever-rising there. Nevertheless, the battle of thought and feeling is being lost. The turmoil of thoughts is unstoppable because they come from feelings that cannot be controlled. They cannot be reasoned with. We say, ‘that’s a nonsensical idea’ or ‘it’s not worth worrying about, there’s nothing I can do now’. But the feelings in the heart zone and the solar plexus that manifest these thoughts have a life of their own.
In such times we learn why Jesus said’ do not worry, set your troubled hearts at rest, have faith in me’, knowing perfectly well how hard that is. Yet for the person of faith it makes a world of difference to remember these teachings. It is so hard to wait without, demands or expectation, fears or hopes, so hard not to plan for an unreal future which first we have to construct imaginatively before we can fantasise about it. It is the unreality of it all that is so heavy. And tiring. We are conflicted: helplessly imagining what might happen, tossed from hope to despair; but also dreading the end of the waiting time because it might actually be the worst we imagined.
Somewhere in all this the mantra is sounding. And something is teaching us.