This is a popular misconception. It is also one of those myths that leads folks to abandon the practice when such experiences don’t come--or when those that do, don’t last.
Transitory experience of any kind is not the goal. The purpose of meditation is something much deeper and more lasting--the complete transformation of our lives. Sounds heady, I know, but it’s true. While you will have some meditations that are delightful, and may even have moments that could be described as mystical, you will likely have many sessions that are boring, irritating or downright disturbing. A meditation high is not the goal. If it is--even on an unconscious level--your meditation will be in danger of devolving into a technique for entertainment, an additional method of grasping, or just another project. And really, don’t we all devote enough of our precious energy to that sort of thing already?
Meditation helps us learn to be right here, right now. Our attention strays repeatedly, and we continually draw it back from wherever it has gone. In so doing, we begin to gain clarity about what we gravitate toward in the absence of any external stimulation. We become aware of the webs we weave, of our habitual tendencies and agendas, of the way we dissociate from pure experience--including experience of the Infinite--as a matter of course. But more important than any of these realizations--which might be interesting, but when all’s said and done, somewhat irrelevant--we increase our ability to bring it all back home, back to this moment. We learn to be present.
Over time, the effects of such a practice begin to filter into the rest of our lives. We learn to live more fully, to experience more deeply, to choose our focus more consciously. It’s what meditation does for us off the cushion that really matters. Are we calmer and more loving? Can we keep things in perspective? Do we recognize when we’re being carried off by a story line about the life in front of us rather than remaining alive to things simply as they are? Do we catch ourselves sooner when we’ve been snookered once more by our mind’s version of reality or when we behave badly? Can we come back to center? These abilities are the gifts of meditation.
And there is another one. Ultimately, as we practice wholeheartedly and steadily, we will be better able to recognize and open to the Divine as It appears within the stuff of our lives. Here’s the truth embedded within this particular myth. By enhancing our ability to be present, meditation can over time increase our capacity for direct experience of the Holy. So, while going to our cushion with an agenda is detrimental to being present with whatever happens there, we may eventually find ourselves coming into a more intimate relationship with the Sacred.
While many committed practitioners never have a direct experience of the Infinite while meditating, others do. Such encounters, however, are not worth much if they come without a sense of the Holy that carries into daily life. Being able to experience the Sacred in every moment of our small lives--in the beautiful and the terrifying--and to act from that awareness is to live within a mystical perspective. Meditation may or may not bring us the Hollywood version of discreet technicolor mystical encounters, but it can be a method toward adopting a mystical way of life. This is so much more valuable.
As has been said before, meditation is a relationship like any other. There will be highs and there will be lows. It is the ability to nurture an abiding devotion--day in, day out--that’s crucial. Otherwise, just as is the unfortunate reality of too many human marriages, you and your meditation practice may go your separate ways once the novelty wears off. And this is so unfortunate because, just as in those human relationships, it’s when the novelty wears off that things really get hoppin’. That’s when you can truly begin to grow and deepen.
One of the things I’ve learned as a psychotherapist is that big, in-your-face changes are not nearly as trustworthy as those that start small and steadily grow to bear fruit. I believe the same is true of meditation. If you do have a wildly ecstatic incident or an amazing vision, just be there as fully as you can--just as you do when you sit through a particularly annoying time. Keep your focus steady and remain open to whatever is given you. But don’t become too enamored of these times, and keep coming back to the process even when those knock-your-socks-off moments are few and far between. Remember, the real fruits will be experienced over time within your daily life.
While lovely experiences are...well...lovely,we do not meditate to get goodies. We meditate to live more fully--which I guess you could say is a goodie. It’s a goodie, though, that keeps giving long after your meditation session is over. Every moment we fully experience is a gift. And to the extent that these moments contain the seeds of further gifts, there is an exponential growth of goodies awaiting us. We just need to allow ourselves to perceive them and be with them fully. As we do, a mystical way of life may, indeed, become ours.
I have heard it said that our job in meditation is simply to show up. The rest is in God’s hands--however you conceptualize Him/Her/It. I like that. Our responsibility is to show up, day after day, through dry times and moist, through boring sittings and ones we might describe as magical. Just sit. Just be here. Now.
PS. For other Meditation Myths and Half-Truths in this series, please see Myth #1, Myth #2, and Myth #4. I'd love to hear about your experiences!