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Mindfulness and Mysticism

Since I've been reading about and practicing meditation, I've naturally tried to translate my experience and my enthusiasm into words that might have meaning for others. I've developed a conceptual "environment" for myself from Ken Wilber's books, and what I do in my practice fits into that environment: Through meditation, I am learning to "see" with other eyes, to back up for a larger perspective. In Wilber's terms, I am working to become aware at a higher level of consciousness, to "transcend and include" my ordinary world.

In my reading of Buddhist material, I gather two approaches. One is the traditional doctrinal approach, of naming all the aspects of "awakening" and its obstacles. Those names often defy clear translation. Even such things as vipassana, nirvana and samsara, so fundamental to traditional teaching, don't have good equivalents in modern English. ("Suffering," for example, has to be explained to people, and often still presents a roadblock to understanding.) The other approach avoids such words, and thus avoids what I consider important concepts. Modern "insight meditation," and "mindfulness" are often presented as simply practical and exoteric processes for getting more out of life. Gone is the sense of transcendence. That may be helpful to those who are (as I was) suspicious of anything "mystical" or "religious." Yet, the linking of mysticism and insight seems to me to be at the heart of the whole thing.

Twenty years ago I read a book, The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, which presented meditation as a way to relieve oneself of stress, a method of relaxing, nothing more. It appealed to me at the time, although I soon tired of the "nothing happening" aspect, and abandoned meditation. If the activity had been presented as "getting in touch with the All" (as it surely was in the more Buddhist literature that I did not read), I would not have been interested. Today, after reading more than a dozen books by Ken Wilber and another dozen books about meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhism, I relate my "path" to something beyond the ordinary experience. Indeed, it seems to be my connection to something I can only describe as Ultimate Reality. It's been only in the past decade that I've even thought about that. Where it will lead me is still uncertain.

Today I'm reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are. It's one of the clearest descriptions of mindfulness and meditation I've read. He acknowledges the contributions of Buddhism, but his language is all from today, his style casual and conversational, without any Pali or Sanskrit words whatsoever. The objectives of meditation are to make one's life better. I'm not disparaging that approach. It's a way to capture the attention of an audience that would resist strenuously any other-worldly justifications for doing something quite profound to oneself.

Even though I agree that connecting mindfulness with transcendence would instantly lose a large segment of Kabat-Zinn's audience, it seems to me that somewhere that connection ought to be made without needing to bring in traditional "religious" concepts. How can one think about mysticism without raising all the roadblocks of the modern world view?

Hmmm. Wonder if I am simply posing distractions for myself. If I acknowledge the connection, and if it provides me with perspective and incentive for continuing my practice, do I need to be able to explain it to others? (That old urge to write.)

Needs some more thought. Before, or perhaps after, I've given it a try.

Donald Skiff, May 21, 1999

Postscript (May 24): Kabat-Zinn writes--

If you do decide to start meditating, there's no need to tell other people about it, or talk about why you are doing it or what it's doing for you. In fact, there is no better way to waste your nascent energy and enthusiasm for practice and thwart your efforts so they will be unable to gather momentum. Best to meditate without advertising it.

Every time you get a strong impulse to talk about meditation and how wonderful it is, or how hard it is, or what it's doing for you these days, or what it's not, or you want to convince someone else how wonderful it would be for them, just look at it as more thinking and go meditate some more. The impulse will pass and everybody will be better off—especially you.

Touché.

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