The Living Flame of Love: Meditations on Meditation
You are not the self you know.
In 1986 I traveled to Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war.
A visit to two teenage victims of a Contra land mine turned into
what I described at the time as an encounter with God. Joy, wonder
and love erupted in the midst of horrible suffering. I caught
a glimpse of the possibility of transforming human experience
not through manipulation of the outside world but through a personal
shift involving the abandonment of the barriers we use to shield
ourselves from Life.
It was only a glimpse. Upon returning to my life in Vermont I
watched as the walls formed around me once again. I have tried
since then, perhaps a little too zealously at times, to find a
way to translate that glimpse into a daily reality.
It has not been easy, and it has been too self-conscious. The
joy I felt in that hospital room in Leon, Nicaragua, came as a
complete surprise, unsought, yet recognized and embraced.
I was first taught the practice of meditation in 1974. When I
was asked by my sister to introduce her to meditation, I discovered
a vehicle for describing what I learned in that hospital room
and in the places, inner and outer, where that encounter has propelled
You believe you possess
something uniquely precious
to be defended at all cost.
You believe you need
to be better than
what you are.
Dear Heart, you are beautiful.
Your life is indeed precious, but
it is not a thing
to be possessed.
There is no "breath",
only the taking in and
the letting go
there is no "me",
no thing to be protected
Only the living,
the growing and decaying,
the joining and the separating,
the mystery of creation.
I can not teach you how to meditate. I suspect that meditation
can not be taught. Instead I want to share some of my thoughts,
reflecting my experience and my personality. Some of what I offer
may be applicable to you. It is for you to discover what fits
and what does not. If, after hearing from me, you still want meditation
to be a part of your life, I have no doubt that meditation will
There are many programs and methods that propose to teach meditation.
Often the stated goal is relaxation and concentration, better
work performance, higher grades, or a better marriage. It is my
experience that all of these expectations get in the way of meditation.
Instead of filling you up with expectations, perhaps I can point
you in the direction of what meditation is for me. Then you may
recognize times in your life of natural meditation and you may
gently nurture these times until they develop into a rhythm in
your daily life.
Meditation is about the way we live. You may chant a mantra for
twenty minutes twice a day for the rest of your life and never
know what meditation is. You may be able to sit for hours but
know nothing about your place in the world. Or you may know nothing
about TM or Zen or Mindfulness and be a meditative person to your
core. Meditation, as I understand it, is not only about sitting
quietly; it is about living fully.
Meditation is not a very accurate word for what I am describing.
The word means "to think about." Reflecting on a scriptural verse,
trying to develop some meaning, might rightly be called meditation,
but that is not what I am talking about. Perhaps by the end of
these reflections it will be clearer what I do mean, and perhaps
a new word will emerge that is more fully descriptive of what
I mean by meditation.
A man labors his whole life as a grave digger. He moans
and complains about the terrible toil of life. He retires,
broken and weary and bitter. A friend says, "Why did
you spend your whole life digging graves with a teaspoon
when you could have used a shovel?"
Often the stated goal of meditation is a quiet mind. What is
a quiet mind? The mind is quiet when asleep, unless it is dreaming,
but is there a quietness that is awake? Any repetitious activity
slows the mind down so that it is not quite asleep, not quite
awake. Repeating a mantra can bring you to this dullness. Is this
a quiet mind?
My experience is that there is a quietness of mind that is extraordinarily
active and alert. Imagine a mountain stream without the rocks,
without any impediment. It is unimpeded movement. The quiet comes
not from ceasing to move but from removing the obstacles that
create noise, that resist movement. It is not movement that makes
noise; it is resistance. It is not the active mind that chatters
with thought, but the blocked mind, just as the stones make the
brook chatter. Of course an inactive mind is also quiet, so it
is easy to be fooled.
Imagine that we are driving down the road, a very straight road.
I am at the wheel and you are in the passenger seat with your
eyes closed. You cannot really tell that we are moving. The most
obvious of facts, that you are hurtling along at sixty miles per
hour, is not felt by you. Do you feel the turning of the Earth,
or the expansion of the universe? Hit a bump, though, and you
will know you are moving. Run into a rock and you will really
know what movement is! In the same way, the unimpeded, active
mind is absolutely silent. The presence of the mind's activity
only becomes known when there are obstacles in its path. When
you run into the rock of frustration, then you know that you are
not standing still. Obstacles are what make movement tangible
The quiet mind is unimpeded movement. The obstacles, the frustrations,
the thoughts, the memories are the points where the movement makes
itself known. So welcome the obstacles. After all, what is a stream
without the rocks and banks? Of course, too many obstacles block
the movement completely, and perhaps that is the situation we
are in when we start looking for a way to unblock, when we turn
to meditation. However, if you are still living and breathing
there is still some movement in you, and so you can begin to explore
your obstacles. You may feel stuck, but the fact is that you are
feeling. You may see nothing but darkness, but the fact remains
that you are seeing. You may run up against obstacle after obstacle,
but the fact remains that you, like the river, are running. This
is the beginning of meditation.
You are sitting and waiting for a bus to take you to a
job you don't like, and it doesn't come and doesn't come
and you are going to be late and you get angry and frustrated
and tense. Suddenly you realize it is Sunday. The buses
don't run, and you don't have to go to work.
Another word often used instead of meditation is contemplation.
This already is an improvement over "meditation."
The word "contemplation" comes from a Latin root that
means "to observe carefully." So one could think of
a contemplative as one who remains at rest long enough to observe
herself and the world around her.
The concept is a little passive, but it accentuates the fact
that most of us rush around without giving a moment to seeing,
or deeply experiencing, or even resting! Idleness is despised.
But stillness, even idleness, sustains us. When I was a monk-in-training
people flocked to the monastery with insatiable curiosity about
the inner lives of the monks. Why were they not insatiably curious
about their own inner lives? Our own inner lives are a mess, that's
why. Paying attention to our inner lives is tedious, and at times
terrifying. It is much easier to romanticize the inner life of
monks than to remain still and face one's own reality.
True contemplation is the most subversive of activities. The
contemplative is the most radical of revolutionaries, and the
most courageous of heroes. She dares to face the most terrifying
demons: her own. He challenges the dominant social and economic
order simply by ceasing all activity that is not essential to
Life. They demonstrate the lie that we need all the stuff we are
incessantly commanded to buy. They remind us of our true nature,
and move us to examine and reorder our lives. And they accomplish
this without doing anything aside from being what they are.
I have learned this lesson most clearly from what I regard to
be some of the truest contemplatives on the Earth, the great whales.
The fins and the blues, the rights and the humpbacks. I have no
idea what the whales' inner lives are like. We don't even know
that much about their external lives. But the effect of their
very existence is like that of the contemplative.
Their silence and stillness remind us of our noisiness, our hectic
scrambling for more stuff and more approval. Their untroubled
breathing reminds us of the suffocating tightness in our chests.
They call us to lay hold of what really matters, that which is
essential to abundant life, and to let go of all that is superfluous.
Thus they transform our lives and overturn the world order.
It is really no wonder that we seek out the contemplative, and
endlessly resist following her example.
Rise and dive
Rise and dive
The whale of the deep
Approaches the surface
And returns home.
Opening into Closing
"But how do I meditate?" you might be asking. The method
is not really important. You are discovering how to be unconditionally
open, to yourself, to others, to your thoughts and feelings and
reactions, to all that you encounter. A method can be a form of
closing even at its best. It will become quite a prison if it
is made all-important. It is a closing because it says, "maybe
if I focus on this other thing, the thoughts and feelings I don't
like will go away." It is closing to the thoughts and feelings,
calling them bad, resisting them, wanting to be in some other
state than the one that you are in.
"But," you object, "I am under a lot of stress.
My body is exhausted, my mind doesn't know which way to turn.
I am confused and tired. This stress is going to kill me if I
don't do something!"
And I respond, "You are now beginning to meditate."
You have wholeheartedly, passionately acknowledged the fact that
at this moment you are in a chaotic state that is bad for you.
It's a subtle difference, but an important difference. Before,
you were feeling stress but were focussing on getting away. Now
that you have opened up to your stress (if you can stay there
and not try to escape), your openness starts to replace your stress.
This openness can not be generated by being pursued as a goal.
To desire openness is to be caught in desire, but open into your
anxiety or distress and your openness will leap in and spread
like a fire in dry grass.
This requires some careful scrutiny, because the accepted road
is to reject what is seen as bad and pursue what is seen as good.
Pursue compassion. Cultivate quietness. Seek to be relaxed. Choose
happiness. Aim for the stars. Think positive.
All I can say is that it is my experience that in meditation
the only way out is through. To pursue a relaxed feeling is a
form of stress, the stress of pursuit. To surrender to the fact
of your stress is to relax. More extremely, if you are encountering
some strong emotion like hate in yourself, to try to feel compassionate
instead is a form of hate. You are hating your hate, perpetuating
it. To embrace your hate, to let yourself see it and accept it,
is a very beautiful form of compassion. You are ending the cycle.
There are methods that incorporate these ideas. A focus (a mantra,
the breath) is used as a starting point from which attention moves
when something of importance comes along. The focus of attention
is not forced, but allowed to move as it does. The focus is the
initiation of the unfolding process. Remember, though, that any
method, including insisting on no method, anything that sets up
an expectation, is a closing. Any method can become a source of
dullness, like the peace march I witnessed that was so focussed
on the march that they trampled all the blooming tulips. Therefore,
start with wherever or whatever you are right now, and find out
for yourself what meditation really is.
Opening into Closing, II
I feel I need to clarify what I mean by "embracing your
hate." There is so much hate and violence in us and around
us. This is so easily misunderstood.
I am talking about what happens when you are allowing thoughts
and feelings to arise spontaneously, not blocking anything that
arises. I am talking about what happens when some strong feeling
arises, some feeling that is normally considered "wrong"
or "dangerous." What if the feeling arises, with all
sorts of images and energy moving through your body, a feeling
of extreme anger toward someone, a very violent feeling?
Will you marshal your strength and say to yourself, "I must
not feel such things," and force those feelings back into
the depths whence they came? They will return, in ways too subtle
for you to notice.
Will you encourage that energy? Will you cheer it on, and get
all wrapped up in it, and say to yourself. "I have a right
to be angry. I should get angry more often. It would do me good."
You will get angry more often. It will not do you or anyone any
Or will you neither encourage it nor contain it, but let it pass?
Will you make of your body and mind a chimney up which this hot
smoke may rise and dissipate? Will you simply let it be what it
is, and let it go? If you block it, you are perpetuating it. If
you claim it as your own, you are perpetuating it. If you do neither
of these, but take a good, clear look at it, you will see right
through it to the frightened person who used those feelings as
a defense; and you will be moved with compassion for that frightened,
angry person. This is what I mean by embracing your anger.
When this happens to you, see how subtly denial works. Even if
you approach a strong "negative" feeling with the thought,
"I must love this," you may be placing an obstruction
in its path that will drive it back down. You may really be saying
"I must get rid of this." You see, actually loving does
not spring from your self. Actually loving rarely expresses itself
in thoughts. Love knows how to surround hate in a way that neither
frightens it back into the depths (for hate is always timid),
nor adds to its force (how can love add to hate?). But this love
arises of its own accord, not at the direction of your will.
So love your hate and anger and pain and guilt. Love what you
despise. All of these are wanting nothing else. If love is what
they find, they will gladly dispel on their own.
You are not
The self you know.
Look at your self.
See that it is so.
The self you know
The living flame of love.
What Do You Expect?
If we did not expect meditation to do something for us, why would
we begin? I began meditation hoping to find God. Meaning what?
I expected to be lifted out of my suffering and brought face to
face with a bright, shining presence that would cleanse me of
all my fears and doubts and troubles.
When that did not happen, I became angry and confused. Why was
God ignoring me? Am I really that unworthy?
I suffered all the more, because of my own expectations of what
I would find. I did not take up meditation to be brought face
to face with my own anger, vulnerability, weakness, and inevitable
death. I wanted to be free of all that! But that is what I found.
That is what presented itself. Who would want such a thing? Who
can stand to see themselves in such a light? Where is God, The
Shining Light of Truth?
And then I got it. The light of truth is shining through me on
my own weakness, my anger, my dying. The Comforter is standing
in the presence of the suffering. Strength is admitting weakness.
Life is admitting the inevitability and necessity of dying. I
am that which I am seeking.
God is here, not to be experienced as Other, but to be lived
as you. Not to be found as an external Cosmic Comforter, but as
a vital, loving presence at the core of your own being, present,
through you, to everything at all times. You are the very Love
Seek and ye shall find.
But not necessarily
What you expect.
I sat at the crest of a waterfall in the Lye Brook Wilderness
of the Green Mountain National Forest. The cascading waters of
spring rushed before me. I closed my eyes as I listened to the
sound of splashing water. After some time, maybe fifteen minutes,
I heard a roar like thunder or a jet engine. I opened my eyes
and looked up, but there was nothing in the sky. It was the waterfall.
I closed my eyes again and realized that the rock I was sitting
on was vibrating. I listened now to the two sounds, the splashing
and the roaring, and I felt my body trembling with the deep vibration
of the rock.
After some time more I thought I heard voices. I opened my eyes
again, expecting to see hikers coming down the brook. No one.
It was the waterfall. I closed my eyes and listened to the splashing
and the roaring and the voices I could not understand. I listened
for a long time, although without much sense of the passage of
Meditation is about listening deeply, not just with your ears,
but with your whole being, to whatever you meet, and most especially
to those things you think you already know completely, and those
you fear or despise.
When a fire is being set under difficult circumstances, the small
beginnings of a flame must be gently encouraged. A breath too
strong will blow it out. A column of air too broad will not give
it the oxygen it needs. A focused, gentle column of air breathes
life into the flame. Soon the force of rising heat draws in the
needed oxygen. Your effort is no longer necessary.
You are such a flame. With care and concentration, with a focusing
of attention like the breath that brings life to the flame, you
will encourage the growth of your own truth.
I started these reflections looking for a new word to use instead
of meditation. I have found it: candescence, which literally means
"beginning to burn brightly." The Latin verb candescere
is the root for the English words incandescent, which means "containing
a bright glow," and the word candle. It is also the root
of the English words candid and candor. Candescence is the uncovering
of your light and the revealing of your truth.
The Latin ending esce implies the onset of something, the process
of beginning. To be candescent is to be always beginning, never
finally arriving, always inquiring, exploring, testing limits,
continuing to begin to burn. Your light is not static and neither
is your truth.
It is not so much that there is this flame to be discovered.
The discovery and expression of who you are right now is the burning
of the flame. The exploring, the entering, the feeling, the expressing
are all the burning of this flame. You are the burning of this
This living flame burns at the core of all that is, with all
the creative and destructive power that the image of fire carries.
Perhaps out of fear of the destructive aspect, we have learned
to bury the power within each of us. As we begin to reveal our
truth to ourselves and then to others, we uncover the spark of
life. We candesce. We begin to burn with a most contagious light.