My last two posts dealt with how to navigate through complexity. I detailed one approach that has worked for me, but it is by no means the only approach. We each need to discover our own path. What has helped me find my path, and I believe may also help you, is the practice of meditation.
I am frequently asked by friends and students how to meditate. Despite many years of practice, I still feel thoroughly unprepared to answer this question. Since I was first exposed to meditation, I have leaned on my teachers. In the 70s and 80s, I looked to the wonderful author and Transactional Analysis pioneer, Dorothy Jongeward. More recently, my dear friend and mentor, Andre Delbecq, was my stalwart guide and, for five years, it was to him that I turned to teach the session on meditation and spirituality in my Stanford entrepreneurship class. Andre’s class was a favorite of my students, and one of the most impactful of all our sessions. Unfortunately, two weeks before he was to teach the Fall 2016 class, Andre passed away at age 80. Since I had recorded his lecture from the previous year, I decided to play it for my class, rather than attempting to recreate it. It was my tribute to him. His words touched me as if I was hearing them for the first time. His spirit permeated the lecture hall, and many students commented afterwards how deeply he touched them. Several have followed up and, when I see them, they tell me they are continuing to meditate.
Now that I no longer have Andre to lean on, I am struggling to find a way to help students with the practice of meditation. It has, for so many years, been a key in my ability to cope with increasing responsibilities and an increasingly complex business. Looking at my sources, I have re-discovered two books that speak directly to the topic from two different traditions and approaches. Both books have the same title: How to Meditate. One, by Eknath Easwaran, comes from the Hindu tradition; the other, by Pema Chödrön, stems from the Buddhist tradition:
Eknath Easwaran, How to Meditate (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2016)
Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2013)
You may have noticed that I have quoted both authors in my past posts. I do not presume to describe here what these special authors teach. Their own words speak so eloquently that I would be robbing you of the experience to savor them for yourselves. Instead, I will share with you some excerpts so that you can taste the beauty of these little books, then perhaps you will be inspired to pick them up and read them. I assure you that once you do, you will be hooked.
What is so marvelous about both of these short treasures is that they are each written as an intimate and personal call from the author to enter the practice of meditation as a way to be more completely present in our lives. I could almost say that both of these authors are pleading with us. Eknath’s first chapter is titled “Invitation to a Journey.” He starts by relaying the story of Humphrey, the whale that captivated so many of us when he got lost in the San Francisco Bay in 1985. Humphrey was ultimately “invited” to find the way out, back to his deep-water world. Eknath describes Humphrey’s apparent impulse, when he finally sensed that he was in the open sea:
Then, free to go wherever he chose, he must instead have felt a silent command: “North. Go north. Go home.” No details, no map, no companions, no guide, just a direction and a desire in response to an overriding imperative from within: go home. It is very much like that on the journey of meditation too. Once you turn inward, the words of the passages urge you forward in response to a summons from the very depths of the heart. This need to return to the source of our being is nothing less than an evolutionary imperative – the drive to realize our full human potential.
Pema subtitled her book “A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind.” In her introduction she says:
…meditation is about a compassionate openness and the ability to be with oneself and one’s situation through all kinds of experiences. In meditation, you’re open to whatever life presents you with. It’s about touching the earth and coming back to being right here. While some kinds of meditation are more about achieving special states and somehow transcending or rising above the difficulties of life, the kind of meditation that I’ve trained in and that I am teaching here is about awakening fully to our life. It’s about opening the heart and mind to the difficulties and the joys of life — just as it is. And the fruits of this kind of meditation are boundless.
One of Pema’s recurring themes in many of her books is a reminder that thoughts are the creations of our minds. They can lead to physical consequences resulting from stress, anger or fear, which are very real to us. We often forget that these began as creations of our minds, as mere thoughts. Our challenge is not to allow them to become 100% of our reality. Pema constantly urges us to stop before this 100%, and go beneath to uncover the source of the thought, the source of the emotion. Meditation is a path to reach “beneath.” According to Pema, to do so we need to be fully in the present moment:
The present moment is the generative fire of our meditation. It is what propels us toward transformation. In other words, the present moment is the fuel for your personal journey. Meditation helps you to meet your edge; it’s where you actually come up against it and you start to lose it. Meeting the unknown of the moment allows you to live your life and to enter your relationships and commitments ever more fully. This is living wholeheartedly.
For both Pema and Eknath, meditation is a transformative process. What I find so valuable is that, from my vantage point, they arrive at the same end point but come from two quite different approaches. Eknath’s practice, which he calls “Passage Meditation,” emphasizes using a memorized passage as a means to go into a very deep quiet zone, reaching a state that disconnects from the sounds, thoughts, sensations, emotions and distractions that are continuously accosting us. Pema, in contrast, emphasizes being fully present in whatever state we are in at the moment, regardless of the emotions that may be gripping us; to be fully present amidst any pains, stresses, desires, anxieties or joys. She then guides us to go beneath these sensations so we can “see” beyond them and start to understand them and deal with them. For her, these emotions and sensations are the teachers of the transformation:
We turn our emotions into frozen objects and invest them with truth, and as a result they have so much power over us. So we train again and again in coming back to the object of meditation as a way of interrupting that fixated quality. The grasping and fixation — that’s really what we’re interrupting.
Pema speaks of emotions as being energy that we can harness. She quotes a passage from “The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation” by her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche:
So the intelligent way of working with emotions is to try to relate with their basic substance. The basic “isness” quality of the emotions, the fundamental nature of the emotions, is just energy. And if one is able to relate with the energy, then the energies have no conflict with you. They become a natural process.
In my own practice, I use both approaches: sometimes employing a passage to enter the deep space (following Eknath’s advice, I often use the wonderful St. Francis Prayer that I’ve reproduced at the end of this post); and sometimes, rather than go deep, I go wide, staying with my immediate state of being and my emotions. Both approaches move me, both touch me, and both teach me. For me, meditation is a continually evolving process: I do not pre-plan which mode I will engage. I allow myself to be taken in either direction. In the end, they both become my guides to the same place of appreciation and gratitude. They both help me be more fully in the present. Most importantly, I attempt to follow the “edict” that both emphasize: Meditate every day.
To make progress in meditation, you must be regular in your practice of it… There is only one failure in meditation: the failure to meditate faithfully. A Hindu proverb says, “Miss one morning, and you need seven to make it up.” Or as Saint John of the Cross expressed it, “He who interrupts the course of his spiritual exercises and prayer is like a man who allows a bird to escape from his hand; he can hardly catch it again” … Put your meditation first and everything else second; you will find, for one thing, that it enriches everything else. Even if you are on a jet or in a sickbed, don’t let that come in the way of your practice. If you are harassed by personal anxieties, it is all the more important to have your meditation; it will release the resources you need to solve the problems at hand.
Meditation is a transformative process, rather than a magic makeover in which we doggedly aim to change something about ourselves. The more we practice, the more we open, and the more we develop courage in our life. In meditation you never really feel that you “did it” or that you’ve “arrived.” You feel that you just relaxed enough to experience what’s always been within you. I sometimes call this transformative process “grace.” Because when we’re developing this courage, in which we allow the range of our emotions to occur, we can be struck with moments of insight, insights that could never have come from trying to figure out conceptually what’s wrong with us, or what’s wrong with the world. These moments of insight come from the act of sitting in meditation, which takes courage, a courage that grows with time.
So, dear Reader, go and get these little books. And perhaps they will help answer your question about what meditation is all about and why some of us are so hooked on it.
The Prayer of St Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
And if you want a lighter passage, which I sometimes also use in my meditation, here is a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver: Why I Wake Early:
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety –
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning,
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
To which I usually add: “…and in gratitude.”