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Skeptical Meditation

Over the many years I’ve practiced Catholic contemplation, the few years I’ve practiced Zen, and now the year or so I’ve tried Wiccan meditation, I find several common threads. Common practices, and common outlooks on what I want meditation to be.

First, the mechanics:

1) I no longer adopt positions that are physically uncomfortable, even on the assurance that I’ll limber up in time.

That means, for starters, no praying on the knees. This is something I did mostly early on in Catholic practice– first, as a child, trying somehow to “suffer back” for Jesus, after what he’d gone through on the cross; then, as a young twenty-something, emulating things I remembered from the pre-Vatican II saint stories of my youth. Whatever an apologist can say about the truest Catholic doctrine involving the goodness of the material world, there is no question that contempt of the body and even outright masochism have often crept into Catholic practice, and permeated Catholic thought. It’s one of the things I mean to unlearn.

I also no longer adopt the hand position I was taught in Zen– the right hand supporting the left, palms upward in front of the belly, the thumbs touching. I am a big woman with big breasts and belly, and it hurts my shoulders to hold this pose. You have the option, at some Zen retreats, of getting a couple of ceremonial blows with a stick on the upper back (one just to the inside of each shoulder blade), mostly as a way of helping you stay awake. I expect that many of us requested these whacks just to get the kinks out of our shoulders. Last time I did this, he hit too damned hard, and I decided that however wrapped in ceremony this was and whatever the current pretext for it, I was still asking to be hit as a distraction from the pain caused by doing what these people instructed me to do. It’s really a good metaphor for masochistic spiritual practices in general– hold the pose they tell you to hold, and when it’s unbearable, hurt yourself (or have someone hurt you) even more so you can stand to do what they tell you a bit longer.

Now, I make sure that whatever pose I adopt can be held for a very long time with no major muscle aches or joint pain. And I don’t worry if I have to scratch my nose.

2) That being said, I still find some basic postural guidelines are helpful. First of all, I keep my body roughly symmetrical. Equal pressure on both buttocks; legs and arms in matching positions. Sprawling is a great way to relax, but there is something about the asymmetry which leaves me feeling ungrounded and out of balance when I want to meditate.

Second, the Zen “tripod” approach seems fruitful to me. They aim to keep the butt and two knees (either the side of the knees, as in the lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese positions, or the knees themselves as in the Seiza position) on the floor. This is not doable for someone with my arthritic knees, but to sit with my butt and two feet forming a tripod is deeply stabilizing, both physically and mentally. I don’t find that keeping my hands on the arms of my chair hurts my meditation in any way.

3) I don’t do anything that involves counting, because I get compulsive about numbers. Instead, I either fix my gaze on an object and clear my thoughts; visualize (as in the wiccan practices of drawing imagined pentagrams in blue flame); or, most commonly, listen attentively to the sounds around me. Gazing and listening are good for letting go of ordinary thought patterns, and learning simply to be attentive. Visualizing is good practice for shamanic work, in which imagery and spontaneous narrative carry you beyond your more consciously directed forms of thought, into the kinds of insights that emerge in dream or reverie.

Next, the aims, or guiding principles:

1) Meditation, for me, is not about producing “cool” experiences. It’s about fostering the capacity to let go of yourself enough to connect more deeply with others as they are. It’s about becoming appreciative instead of grasping, content with your limitations instead of self-aggrandizing or self-punishing, gentle instead of brusque. Any practice that brings about this shift is, in my view, sound spiritual practice; anything that involves pyrotechnics (visions, ecstatic states, out of body stuff, whatever) without producing these changes is worthless.

Here, I probably show a Catholic bias. One of Paul’s more famous letters (2 Corinthians) says that if we can speak in tongues, work miracles, etc, but don’t have love, we’re just empty noise (I’m paraphrasing here). Carmelite authors* from the sixteenth century to the present are very clear that the warm fuzzies, the rush of feelings, even the visions you can summon up in prayer are not the goal.
Zen, too, is more or less designed to take down the part of you that wants to achieve or impress yourself or others with your spiritual prowess. When the Emperor of China asked Bodhidarma how much merit he had accumulated by building temples, Bodhidarma answered, “none.” The point of meditating and encouraging meditation was not to achieve some kind of hero status! Buddha said that if you meet Buddha on the road, you should kill him: i.e., if think you’ve “arrived,” that you’ve found “IT,” spiritually, you are under a harmful illusion.

Or, to quote a modern master, Yoda: “Excitement … adventure … A Jedi craves not these things!”

Now, Wiccans do seem to value states of high emotion. The “cone of power,” if I understand it, is an exercise in self-induced group ecstasy, as is shamanic drumming. On the individual level, I certainly experience peace when I cast a circle, and there is something quasi-hypnotic about the shamanic journey. There is certainly a skill involved, as any good performer or orator knows, in inducing strong feelings in oneself or others. Moreover, it’s clear to me that liturgies of all kinds aim at inducing states of mind, from the hypnotic calm and attentiveness that I feel when I hear Gregorian chant, to the depths of joy and of comfort experience by many when they hear Gospel music in their churches. Is it a “good thing,” or a “distraction”?

The Carmelite saints distrusted storms of emotion in prayer because they believed that God transcends our experience, and God is the goal. We can easily mistake the state of our feelings for “the presence of God,” and end up worshipping our own nervous systems. Just as in Zen, attachment to anything (including one’s own enlightenment) is an illusion and a distraction, for many contemplatives, the wish to feel “spiritual” in some way can become an idol, displacing God.

On the other hand, there is a troubling elitism, in my view, to privileging forms of spirituality which downplay the emotions. My preference for silence or chant over gospel music as a spiritual vehicle could easily slide over into eurocentrism and even racism, when in fact, it’s a function of my particular neural wiring and of my culture than of special spiritual aptitude on my part.

2) On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. I don’t look to a particular religious body for what I should believe, but neither do I place unqualified trust in my own feelings, and the fact that a practice raises them tells me nothing about its soundness. After all, faith healing hucksters can also induce “changes of consciousness” in others. There are many ways to understand any given emotional state, and strong feeling doesn’t mean you’ve found the truth.

I suppose that in wiccan terms, one could say that dedication to the Goddess is dedication to all-that-is; for this reason, fostering illusion is never healthy spirituality (my goddess of preference, Kali, is said to be the destroyer of illusion). I have occasionally seen my psychotherapy clients encourage their own psychotic tendencies because delusion seemed more romantic and exciting than the real-life stresses they faced. It’s understandable. But if we really believe we are all connected, and therefore accept responsibility for how we engage with the whole, we can’t use psychological tricks to insulate ourselves from shared reality.

On the other hand, we can use whatever means we find to refresh ourselves for better engagement. So if the cone of power empowers, or the shamanic journey heals– well, to be biblical once more, we know them by their fruits.

I love reading tarot cards, but I am aware that whatever the layout, I am the one putting the story together, and I can’t help noticing that often my readings say more or less what I was thinking anyway– the cards simply draw my attention to more aspects of the situation I’m pondering. My shamanic journeys often surprise me, not by their content, but by the sense of peace and of being understood that they bring me. But they don’t, as far as I’m concerned, bring me supernaturally or paranormally endorsed answers to anything.

So while I feel enriched and helped by the witchier forms of meditation I’m learning, they still (as I’m sure most witches would agree) need to be integrated into a lifetime of efforts to learn, to understand, and to let go of misconceptions. If my meditation makes me more alive to science and history, more attuned to nature and to current events, and better able to listen to others, then it’s healthy meditation.

If not– then it’s time for Kali to do her stuff!

3) For all we need to cultivate the capacity for critical thinking, it is still the case that our brain does a great deal of unconscious processing– and does it faster than our conscious mind can. We notice subtle cues in our environment that signal danger or safety, for instance. This is an important adaptive feature of our brains, since if we had to rely on consciously observed cues all the time we could not react quickly enough when we are in danger.

Moreover, for all our emotions can deceive us, ours (or others’) reasoning can, too. Anyone who has suffered emotional abuse knows that the abuser’s veneer of logic is often used to disarm and confuse the healthy instincts of the victim. For this reason, the frequent practice of opening ourselves to subconscious awareness is an important survival tool. Often, the feelings we discover put us in the way of better reasoning– reasoning which takes into account more of the data. After all, emotions are real data when it comes to making decisions. What could it mean to make the “best choice” apart from what we actually value and want?

Women, in particular, have been taught to distrust their feelings for millenia, and been labeled as hysterical for reacting to provocations that the dominant culture refused to recognize. For this reason, meditations which teach us to take our feelings seriously and hear them out, are critical to women’s ongoing empowerment– just as the empathy we cultivate in good meditation will help us to collaborate better, and become more effective in the world.


* It’s a Catholic religious order, dedicated to contemplative prayer and service. Carmelite saints do, of course, report religious ecstasies; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are famous for their poetic expressions of these experiences. They are clear, however, that the goal of their contemplation is not to produce them, and that the darker, more barren times are often more productive of real spiritual growth.

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