Wednesday, March 28, 2018


A while ago, in these rambling notes, I mentioned the importance of meditation in my life. It is a daily practice--it's rare that I miss a day--and it's central to the way in which I wish to live out my last years (or months, or days! depending on what is granted me). We do not have a good word, in my view, for the numinous aspect of our lives. "Soul" carries too heavy a load of Christian tradition and theology; and "spirit"--with its associated "spiritual"--has become dangerously close to trite in contemporary parlance. Still, I know that I have had compelling glimpses of this part of my being, especially of course in meditation, and I am preoccupied--is that too strong a word?--with thoughts about what, if anything, might happen to us mortals after death.

I was brought up in the traditions of the Church of England. My father was a minister in the church; our family attended services at least every Sunday and worshipped a God in whom I now think, in retrospect, I never truly believed; who lived in a heaven to which I might, if good, be transported after I was dead. As soon as I was far enough away from home to avoid the risk of offending my father--for that, I believe, was my chief motivation in "going to church"--I abandoned any pretense of interest in religion. Perhaps I was just too young to believe in death! So it is fair to say that I was indifferent, if not actively hostile to all forms of religious thought and religious practice until reaching middle age. At which time, a series of painful and challenging events--I have described them often enough elsewhere--brought me to the acknowledgement that some part of me, perhaps that part my father's faith had fostered, still hankered for recognition of that "something greater than myself."

I felt called, in particular, by my name. An epiphany at the time in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome--again, I have described this in great detail elsewhere--confronted me with the memory that I was born on the Anglican feast day of St. Peter's Chains, and appropriately received the name of my birth day saint: Peter the Rock, Peter the Denier. Looking into my own life with any seriousness for the first time after that event, I discovered both of these qualities of the Christian saint in myself as I began to delve deeper into two long-neglected aspects of my life: the emotional, and the numinous. I was brought, particularly, into unsparing contact with my emotional disconnectedness in the course of an intense men's training weekend that would change my life and that led me, soon, to acknowledge the importance of the spiritual.

It was one of the men from that weekend who led me to my first experience with Buddhism--though it was something quite different from the Buddhism that inspires me today. My friend invited me to investigate what's known as Soka Gakkai Buddhism, whose practice involves prolonged sessions of chanting informed by specific goals to be achieved--anything from healing from illness, to success in business, to a new car. I had been aware of the resurgence of Eastern religious thought in American culture in the late 60s and early 70s, but had treated it with the hostility and rejection that had become my default attitude to religion. As for meditation, well, my mind was much too busy with important matters than to quiet down enough for that! But now, in the 1990s, and myself in my mid-50s, I was finally prepared to give it a try.

I began to chant--and chanted for two years. Chanting, I told myself, was the perfect distraction my busy mind required, giving it something to do to keep it occupied. I chanted until I began to feel uncomfortable, particularly with the goal-orientation of the practice; and discovered, first in the context of a workshop at the Esalen Institute, that I was actually capable of a few minutes' silent meditation. Not too long later, I heard of a sitting group, a sangha, in Laguna Beach. When I called to inquire about it, I was told they started out with a silent sitting session that lasted a full hour...

An hour! I was astounded and not a little alarmed by the thought. But I showed up anyway, and discovered that it was perfectly possible to sit for an hour without going mad with boredom and impatience for the hour to end. Not only was it possible, it was actually profoundly pleasurable and rewarding. So I joined the sangha, and have been sitting with this wonderful group of dedicated people for more than twenty years.

As the subtitle for this blog reveals, I call myself an "aspiring Buddhist." Although I meditate daily and believe whole-heartedly in the wisdom of the dharma, I still don't feel religious about it and remain, perhaps to my detriment, a skeptic when it comes to the dogma of religion. My reluctance to commit to avowing myself a full-fledged "Buddhist" derives in part from that skepticism, but also in part, I fear, from a kind of self-protectiveness, a refusal to completely surrender myself into the arms of nothing but belief. Perhaps I am as yet unable to detach sufficiently from the notion of self to make that definitive acknowledgement.

And yet... after twenty years, I sometimes feel I have come to an important threshold in my meditation practice, though it may turn out to be just another plateau. When I'm able to reach that place where the physical body is left behind and I have been able to discard at least some of the identities to which I cling, where "self" recedes into the delusions that I manage in such moments to elude, I get what I sense to be a flickering glimpse of what is called "the deathless." It is this sense of enduring, almost blissful presence that I would wish to cultivate as I continue to practice.

And, as I like to say, I still have plenty of work to do.

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