Thinking this morning about what Wendell Berry calls “commitment without end,” about mystery, and about faith.
I meditate. Been doing it a long time and try to do it every day.
Some days, I have a transcendent experience in which I feel not just connected to the vital force of reality but indeed interwoven into the very fabric of the universe.
That’s every six-hundredth day or so, I’d guess.
Most days, I just sit there, watching thoughts come, and letting them go with varying degrees of success.
This morning was one where I felt actively repelled, as if the mat and cushion were the wrong magnetic charge. I squirmed for twenty minutes, wondering why the hell I do this. What’s the point? Where’s the benefit? Why bother? I could use that twenty minutes—to sleep or write or workout, none of which I do enough of. I was ready not just to get up from my mat this morning, but to give it up entirely forever.
And then the timer went off and now I’m sitting here and thinking about what it means to have an anchor in life. Because that’s a lot of what it’s done. I have a discipline and a practice, something I can return to and depend on amidst a very full, busy, demanding life. The benefits of such things may be invented, but I bought into them a long, long time ago, before I was old enough to know better (swimming), and also we invent the reasons for everything we do. It’s what consciousness does when it needs an answer it doesn’t have the language for.
Which is another thing meditation has given me: perspective. Not just perspective on my anxieties and troubles, though that is a tangible benefit of meditation and one you can reap even without the “spiritual” or existential component that I mean here. What I mean here is that above all the things I’ve learned about the smallness of the planet and the vastness of the universe and the magic of the physical world, meditation has helped me see that there are things I cannot explain.
This is no easy task. I grew up in a household and a culture in which the assumption was that things were knowable. So long as you applied sufficient reasoning and willpower, you could get the answer. America operates on this assumption. As does the West generally, and capitalism. There wasn’t, and isn’t, a whole lot of room for ideas and actions that don’t have an answer or a point. So I’m not inherently comfortable with the inexplicable.
We’ve maybe never been, and people come at this from all angles, from across millennia and across cultures. Whether it’s a belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God or that wide-bosomed Gaia arose from Chaos to provide hearth and home for the gods, we’ve developed elaborate systems to try to put the ineffable into words. I bristle at other people’s explanations of the divine so I won’t bore you with mine, but I’ll tell you this: when I think about my children, and the natural world, and the friends whose children and grandchildren will outlive me, and what I, a person sitting on a mat in a living room in the San Fernando Valley at 4:00 in the morning, can do for them, it is easy to get overwhelmed. To get cynical and downright fatalistic. But that’s because I’m trying to define what I’m doing. I’m trying to find a rational explanation.
Instead, what meditation both does and requires is the development of faith. What that means to me is the ability to continue in what I’ve decided is the right direction irrespective of any obvious reinforcement. If I do that long enough and consistently enough, I’m taught how to see the reinforcement. Or sense it, somehow, in a way that, well, I can’t explain. And that, somehow, helps me to be useful without questioning why.
But listen, this is an essay—an attempt to explain something with words—and how satisfying is it going to be to get to the end only to say “Sorry, pal, go meditate for a decade and you’ll know what I mean”? So let me try translating what I mean into the language of folk wisdom and common sense:
I know a guy who says, “Everyone’s bound to run into an asshole once a day. If you run into two, that’s a rough day. If you run into three assholes in one day, you’re the asshole.”
I’m wired to be an asshole, but I don’t want to walk around being an asshole, and plugging in, via meditation, to whatever that thing is that people have for thousands and thousands and thousands of years called “god” helps keep me from being an asshole.
At least as often as I would be otherwise.