A Warning about Meditation!
A warning about meditation may seem strange to you. Meditation teachings abound in our culture. The objects differ, but why give a warning about meditation?
When we meditate, don’t we all do about the same thing?
Frenchman Auguste Rodin epitomized meditation as hard mental work when he created The Thinker (above). Rodin cast the statue as a colossal 6-foot man, muscular and ready for physical work, but also ready for tough mental work.
Unlike meditation as a path toward enlightenment or self-realization, The Thinker’s meditation ponders tough specifics.
Rodin intended The Thinker to be imagining Hell with its tortures, his feverish mind working passionately to devise a plan to keep him from such suffering.
The famous sculptor gave us an enduring caution.
A Warning about Meditation!
Meditation Involves Hard Work.
Meditation demands serious, conscious effort aimed at achieving a specific pursuit. Rodin worked to teach that through his statue.
Meditate is an action word. When we meditate, we act. We make a conscious decision to pursue a specific truth, idea, or solution. The Thinker gazed down on the terrors of a specific Hell and knew he would someday drop into it.
Terrified, The Thinker committed himself to digging and digging until he found a way to escape a devastating eternity in Hell. He took a deathlike mental grip on the specific expectation that he would achieve what he pursued.
We need to reject notions that all we have to do is sit and shift our minds into neutral – let our minds idle, contemplating nothing specific, free to do whatever they want to do. Such so-called acts of meditation involve no action – yet every dictionary lists meditate as an action word.
An old proverb tells us that, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” We can trace that adage back to Chaucer’s use of it in his 12th century Tale of Melibee.
H.G. Bohn, in his Hand-Book of Proverbs (1855) re-phrased the adage Chaucer used to advise us that, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.”
Most of us understand readily how the hands can function as the devil’s tools. Some of us have trouble, however, understanding exactly how the brain can become the devil’s workshop.
Let me explain what I mean.
The Devil’s Workshop
One who believes meditation involves lack of action – that the best meditation leaves the brain free to chase whatever fuzzy notion it imagines – hangs over his or her mind’s doorway a sign that reads “Devil’s Workshop”.
Look at it this way.
Imagine your brain as a well-equipped commercial building you’ve inherited. You set up a workshop and office in the space, and hang the walls with colorful, clear goals. You hang out your shingle and open for business, specializing in production of a large line of useful thingamajigs. The work requires a strong hand, but you stick with it, determined to achieve every one of those clear goals.
One day, you read that if you free up that workplace – empty it – your life will get sweeter and easier. You’re not sure, but it sounds easier than what you’re doing, so you decide to follow the advice. You remove every piece of machinery and every item you used to manufacture your thingamajigs. You pack your accounting files and the rubber tree plant in the corner. You empty the building, leave the door open, and go home to a nap.
But once you’re out of sight, an enemy jumps into action. In a flash, he sets up his own workshop in your building and hangs up his shingle: “Devil’s Workshop”.
Your idle business, having stopped working on specific, useful items, begins to do the work of the devil. It begins to churn out ugly, dangerous gizmos.
I’m sure you get the picture.
Your brain needs a strong hand such as the French sculptor gave The Thinker so that you can carry out good, specific pursuits in meditation. A brain left to its own devices will never stop working, but will default to doing the devil’s work.
That brings us back to our theme:
A Warning about Meditation!
Meditation Ruminates on Specifics
Have you ever watched cows chew their cud? Dairy cows spend almost 8 hours a day chewing their cuds for a total of almost 30,000 chews daily.
I doubt you’ve ever looked at a cow chewing and thought, “That cow just lets its mouth go free to chew on whatever happens to enter it.”
That would be nonsense. Cows fill their stomachs with specific nourishing food, working to chew it as they go. They feed on things such as grass (over 50%) as well as the leaves and stems of corn, wheat, and oats.
A cow’s work does not end once it swallows that food either. After eating its fill, a cow lies down, regurgitates some of the food, and gets to work on rumination. It chews the cud for hours and hours until it’s ready for the digestive tract to use.
We actually use the idiomatic expression “chewing one’s cud” to mean meditating or pondering something until we understand it well enough to use it.
We can also define meditate with the word “ruminate”. If you ruminate, you take time to think deeply about something specific. You go over it once in your mind, and then bring it back to your brain to take it apart, turn it over, study it, and work to understand it so well that you can use it.
Like the cows, we need to sit in a quiet “pasture” and make our brains work at ruminating, i.e., chewing the cud of the specific object we’re contemplating.
Sometimes, however, something interrupts our rumination. Something comes into our quiet “pasture” and demands attention.
That said, I want to sound one more alarm.
A Warning about Meditation!
Smartphones and Cellphones Distract Meditation
I’d like to update The Thinker with a small addition to his head. I want to implant an invisible smartphone / cellphone in his brain and see how his meditation changes.
Will The Thinker with that invisible phone in his head keep his meditation focused solidly on wrestling for a solution to his specific, frightening dilemma of how to avoid Hell? He’d still desire the solution. He might still try to focus his meditation on finding that solution – but we’ve given him a new problem.
I say this because I frequently feel as though someone has implanted an invisible phone in my brain. I’m able to ignore calls and texts from our actual smartphone, but the hordes of distractions that flood my brain when I try to meditate make me feel as though a virtual smartphone is ringing repeatedly in my head.
I often catch myself daydreaming shortly after beginning to meditate or pray. I might daydream about a previous conversation, tomorrow’s appointment, or something I forgot to put on the shopping list. Distractions!
A brain trying to meditate in the presence of distractions and interruptions faces an uphill battle all the way. I’ve found that random thoughts and reminders over-rule my specific, determined attempts at meditation – and I hate that.
It’s like the funny bunny joke: count to ten without thinking of a rabbit. You may determine that you absolutely will not think about a rabbit, but once I give you the task, you’ll automatically think about a rabbit the moment you start counting. That rabbit distracts your mind.
Purposeful meditation on a specific subject hates distraction. If The Thinker is desperately meditating on finding a solution to Hell’s terrors, he really does not want his brain to suggest rabbits or any other rambling idea.
After wrestling too long with the dilemma of distractions, I committed myself to finding a solution. Now, having researched and meditated on it, I believe I’ve made a beginning at solving the puzzle.
What can you do to handle thoughts that distract during meditation?
Build Mental Self-Control Muscle
You can use the distractions that interrupt your meditation to strengthen your mental self-control muscle. No muscle ever becomes strong unless you make it push back against resistance. The same is true of mental self-control muscles.
Muscle training always requires hard work, of course. You will have to apply yourself to focus on resisting / rejecting every distraction. Those thoughts want to take up residence in your brain, and they will push aside your conscious pursuit if you let them. Resist and they will flee from you.
The following three resistance strategies can help you resist distractions, building strength into your mental self-control muscle. Repeated resistance exercises will strengthen your ability to control your meditation.
- Meditate with Specificity ~ Distractions increase when we try to meditate on vague, fuzzy subjects. When we focus our meditation on one specific matter, as Rodin created The Thinker to do, we weaken distractions.
- Meditate on Distractions ~ Fight fire with fire, meditating on the very things that distract you until you have forced them into submission. Meditate on finding a solution to one or two specific distractions, and work at it.
- Meditate with a Journal ~ Write the aim of each meditation time. Make notes as you meditate to stay on track. Writing functions as a personal trainer to help you discipline your mind. It resists distractions, helping you channel and structure your meditation and prayer as you desire.
A warning about meditation sounds in Rodin’s own words about his statue:
“What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”
Meditation demands that kind of serious, conscious work to overcome distractions and interruptions that would keep us from the desired results.
I’d like to hear how you might resemble Rodin’s Thinker. Please write.