The Power of Meditation

An Article by David Cornfield

Meditation is a powerful agent for change. While your life may be desperately in need of change, keep in mind that change of any kind is almost never painless. 

My first meditation class was offered as part of an After Four program at the local public school. That was twenty-five years ago. The first thing the teacher did was to give us a warning. Her message was simple: Don’t think you can toy with meditation. It’s too powerful a technique. If what you want to do is learn to relax, or lower your levels of stress, or have fun, then try a dance class, aerobics or swimming. If your priority is to reach your full potential as a human being, then meditation is an efficient vehicle for initiating and promoting that growth but you have to be prepared to be put through in ways that you cannot anticipate at the outset.

I heard her words, but I didn’t really take them seriously. She and I were playing two entirely different games. She was worrying about implementing something so powerful I might get hurt. I was worrying about wasting my time in a rinky dinky After Four program. That I might get hurt seemed totally absurd to me. How could I possibly get hurt when all were talking about was sitting on the floor of a public school gymnasium and counting our breath, or chanting or twisting our bodies into shapes resembling pretzels? Give me a break.

You might well ask what was I doing in a meditation class if I was so skeptical? Well, I had read about meditation and the claims made for it intrigued me. I wanted to be enlightened. I wanted to experience an altered state of consciousness without drugs. I wanted to meet God. I thought I might enter some sort of mystical state that would transform me into a wiser, better person. It’s not that I expected any of those things to happen. I thought that I didn’t have much to lose by giving it a whirl, and who knows, I might just get something out of it. 

Six months later my marriage lay in tatters.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that meditation was the cause of my marriage falling apart. My marriage was long overdue for massive change and meditation was the catalyst, not the cause. My ex-wife and I were devoted practitioners of the time-honoured method of dealing with problems by pretending there are no problems. Things had escalated to the point where the illusion of no problems could only be sustained if we didn’t actually interact very much. I did my part by staying late at work. And when I did get home, I would rustle up chores for myself, like weeding the lawn until it was so dark I couldn’t see. My ex-wife did her part by going to bed early and falling asleep before I even entered the bedroom. The amazing part of it was that, while we hardly spoke, both of us were still convinced that we were the proverbial golden couple. In other words, it was a relationship grounded in extreme denial, a state far removed from mindfulness. So you can understand why my participating in an activity designed to raise mindfulness was like arming a time bomb.

Sitting there cross-legged on that school gymnasium floor, I made no connection at all between the cautionary words coming from the mouth of my teacher and the state of my marriage. Why would I? My reasons for being there had nothing to do with my marriage. I was there to pursue my vision of achieving nirvana. If I hoped for anything, it was that I would sit perfectly still in lotus position, breathing deeply, observing the passage of my thoughts and feelings, and I would be overwhelmed by a sudden blinding flash of light. My ego personality would merge into the bliss of oneness with the divine, and I would be suffused with inner peace. Now maybe, just maybe, I said to myself, this instructor is telling me to watch out for that blinding flash of light. Blinding flashes are definitely not to be messed with. But did it occur to me that my personal life was at risk of falling into a tailspin? Not for a moment. 

I did experience an epiphany of sorts as a result of meditating, but, as you have no doubt surmised, it was not a revelation about the divine. What I realized was that I was unhappy, that my unhappiness centred on my marriage and, that when tracked under the scrutiny of meditation, my thoughts strayed on a fairly consistent and frequent basis to what it would be like to be with another woman. Quite frankly, I was shocked by my own fantasies. This was not at all what I had been expecting. If I had even the slightest inkling of how my consciousness was about to be raised, I have no doubt that I’d have bolted for the nearest exit. Having started, however, I found that there was no going back. The more I meditated, the more I became alive to my thoughts and feelings, to the point where I could no longer ignore them. By the time the dust settled, my marriage was over. 

Let’s recap the essentials of this story. I take myself to a class in meditation in pursuit of eternal bliss. I am given a warning, but the warning has little or no impact on me. My marriage explodes, and, despite having been warned, I feel as though I have been blindsided. To gain an understanding of what is wrong with this picture, it is useful to step back for some historical perspective. Human beings have been meditating for thousands of years. Every culture in every age and every geographical location has had a mystical tradition involving the practice of some form of meditation. A common thread linking these traditions is that they are almost always considered to be esoteric. In other words, throughout history and around the globe almost everyone who has meditated has come to the conclusion that meditation is powerful medicine and as such must be treated with care. We don’t make powerful medicines freely available over the counter. We put them on a restricted list, to be dispensed by a druggist on the prescription of a doctor. Meditation is no different. Techniques of meditation have always been on a restricted list, to be shared only with initiates who have undertaken to meditate under the guidance and supervision of a teacher. And even when initiated, novices aren’t usually given the whole ball of wax in one go. There are degrees of initiation. You start as a novice, and you go on to more advanced work only when your teacher is satisfied that you have successfully completed the novice level. 

I remember the first time I heard the word esoteric. I was in a high school history class and we were discussing the ancient school of philosophy based on the teachings of Pythagorus. Pythogoreans were convinced that the knowledge they were working with was not suitable for everyone. It was esoteric knowledge. The idea outraged me. What makes them think that they are better than anyone else is? Who decides who gets into their club and who doesn’t? And what qualifies them to make that decision? Shouldn’t everyone have access to this information if it is so valuable? 

My youthful indignation was misguided. The esoteric restrictions applied to meditation have nothing to do with elitism. They are put in place to protect novice meditators from the kind of explosion that I experienced in my first marriage. Meditation is powerful because it expands consciousness. What does it mean to expand consciousness? It means bringing into awareness information that has been out of awareness. Why might information be out of our awareness? A lot of the information that begins to surface as we meditate is information we have been choosing to be unaware of. Why might we choose to be unaware? We choose to be unaware because lack of awareness serves us in some way. We put on blinders because there are things we’d rather not know about, things that are unpleasant or painful or difficult to bear. We don’t want to feel or respond to our physical pain. We don’t want to acknowledge our anger, our fear or our desire. We don’t want to see the problems in our relationships, our career or the world. We don’t want to feel the despair of meaninglessness and isolation. Rather than confront these personal demons, we find ways to look away, shutting down our awareness at every level - physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Meditation reverses that process of shutting down. Meditation puts us in touch with our bodies, makes us aware of our stream of consciousness, and opens up our emotions. Through practicing meditation, we rediscover our aliveness. In the process however we lose our ability to turn a blind eye to the painful and problematic aspects of our lives. We shut ourselves down in the first place in order to avoid facing the pain of our lives. As long as we meditate, denial is no longer a viable option. Meditation confronts us with our issues, forcing us to find new ways to take them on.

When meditation surfaced the problems in my first marriage, it was like a bomb going off. When that bomb exploded, there were no supports in place to help me process the issues I was suddenly facing, and, bereft of help of any kind, my marriage went down the tubes. Which brings me to my point. Meditation is a powerful tool. Like any other powerful tool, it needs to be handled with respect. How do you respect the power of meditation? You do it by making sure you don’t undertake a practice of meditation without having access to a qualified teacher or a therapist who is willing to help you deal with the issues meditation raises within your awareness. To meditate on your own, on a regular basis, without that kind of help, is to ask for trouble. Like me twenty five years ago, you could find yourself in over your head, confronting long standing issues that you had no idea existed, and that you are ill prepared to deal with. It happened to me, and it was no fun, I can tell you. Indeed it makes me wonder what the outcome might have been in my first marriage had I had the kind of support I am talking about. It might well have been very different.

I am well aware that in this day and age, meditation is no longer on the restricted list. It may be powerful medicine, but it is now available over-the-counter. Anyone who wants to dabble in meditation can find hundreds of books and classes on the topic. The question is, do these books and classes make sure you get the kind of support that meditators need when they start meditating? If the answer is no, I urge you to take a pass. Meditating at home, or even in a meditation class, without adequate support and supervision is not really a good idea. What you need is a teacher or a therapist who can guide you as you move through the agony and the ecstasy of personal transformation. Without that kind of guidance, one of two things is likely to happen. Either you get scared and find yourself not following through on your commitment to meditate, or, like me in my first marriage, you get overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems you are suddenly facing and make a mess of them. 

No suitable teacher on your horizon? The traditional mystical wisdom on this point is that when you are ready, the teacher appears. So if there is no teacher, perhaps you aren’t ready for one. Remember that transformation is more likely to feel like an ordeal than a picnic. There is no need to rush things. Keep breathing. Stay open. And when it is the proper time to meditate the teacher will emerge.

David Cornfield

The Power of Meditation was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine, December 1999

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