I’ve been reflecting lately on meditation, and its potential for change in our lives. This reflection took me back to a time before I’d started my meditation practice, soon after my arrival in Sydney in 1986. I saw an old-style (paper!) flyer for a one-day workshop with a title that caught my attention: “Eternity Conscious Now!” I was sold.
The workshop was run by John Wren-Lewis, a scientist who’d had a completely rationalist outlook on life until a poisoning on a bus in Thailand changed all that. (It was a robbery.) After his near-death, the focus of his consciousness shifted towards the back of his head, as he characterised it. He felt he was looking at reality from another position, and described it as an “eternity consciousness”. His personality changed and my experience of him that day was of an effusive, bubbly, positive person, with an endless stream of stories and witticisms. It was quite a day!
John spoke about how it is impossible to describe in words spiritual experiences, but that this fact does not people from repeated trying: to “eff the ineffable” (something he said several times).
Well, we worked hard that day and did John’s suggested exercises (including putting out attention to the back of our heads) but I doubt that anyone came away with John’s shift in consciousness. (I certainly did I not.)
Soon after that day, in a personal crisis, I commenced a meditation practice. I don’t know how much the day influenced me, but it was certainly a good experience to have had right from the start. It gave a context to many of the questions and claims rife in spiritual communities that I subsequently encountered – about the use and efficacy of meditation: “Does it work?”, “What’s it for?”, “When will I get enlightened?”.
Some Eastern teachings (Zen is a example) emphasise the years of hard zazen needed to achieve this ultimate goal of “enlightenment”. Well, if there is such a thing, I think John had it (he has now passed away), and it wasn’t from years of hard work, it was from a poisoning!
Some people spend 5 or 10 minutes in meditation before or after their work day, and that’s ok. Others turn meditation into a lifestyle, and that’s ok too. We can expect that the changes the latter person experiences will be greater than those of the former. But we do what we can and as our interest leads us. Irrespective of the level of meditation in our lives, I think the question of intention is important. If we think there is a goal to be achieved, then perhaps we have just transferred the striving and competitiveness of our everyday lives into the meditation space. To the extent that this is true, we will probably come to a dead end at some point, and lose the energy for the practice.
But if we remain eager to engage with it, the actual experience of it, then it can be what I think it should be: a sweet vantage point from which we can separate ourselves from the mental and physical complexities of our lives for sufficient time to see these complexities as secondary.
In other words, meditation as a true “abidance”, a coming home, enabling us to recover and restore our mental well-being. It’s as though we left the planet for a short time, and saw earth like that famous NASA photo of this blue spherical wonder!
I think this view of meditation fits with Gestalt’s awareness practice, the development of which was influenced by Zen. (Fritz Perls, Gestal therapy’s originator, spent time in a Zen monastery in Japan.)
And further, I think it’s important to accept a multi-level view of the psyche, and psychic processes, within our own (Western) culture. The now (somewhat marginalised) teachings of Plotinus are a good example of this multi-level view.
Plotinus spoke of three levels of reality: transcendent Spirit (“the One”), Cosmic Mind, and the individual soul, and that we exist simultaneously on these three levels. He spoke of the soul as being “amphibious”, that is, sometimes submerged in the material world of the individual soul, and sometimes raised to the higher levels of being. He says:
The chains of our senses keep us bound here, as if we’re trapped in a cave. However, deep within, the soul remembers its true nature. This recollection motivates it to begin meditating. – from Lost Masters, by Linda Johnsen.
What I like about his conception of reality is that it includes everything: thought-free (as much as that’s possible) transcendent meditation, through to a reverence for the archetypes in dream and imaginal work, to awareness work on our behaviours in the world, or our behaviours in relationship with our spouse or family members.
And how about a meditation that’s almost “no meditation”? I enjoy the minimalist approach of Joan Tollifson, which you can find in her books and on her substack – for example, see her “The Heart of Spirituality“:
Walking on this spring morning, sitting down in a field of dandelions and green grasses, everything is sparkling with light. Watching the bees, the ladybugs and the ants all traversing this wonderland, feasting on the edibles.
And so why not, in psychotherapy, hold the possibility of working at all psychic levels? That’s something that I try to do, in my practice, with an amalgam of Jungian, Hillmanian (Archetypal Psychology), Gestalt Here-and-Now and awareness modalities, and, at all times and as much as possible, reverence for (to use John Wren Lewis’s term) Eternity Consciousness.
And that practice, for me, needs to include my own inquiry – which leads to the image at the top of this page, from jewel field, a folio of digital works that reflect on the imaginal world of my own meditations.