Medicate or Meditate: Coping with the Chaos of Life

(Originally presented to Bull Run Unitarian Universalist in 2005)

The Zen Master walks up to the hot vendor and asked for a hot dog.  The vendor asks him what he wanted and the Zen master replies: One with everything.  He gets his hot dog, but he handed the vendor a twenty dollar bill and didn’t get any money back.  So the Zen Master says to the hot dog vendor, “Where’s my change?”  To which the hot dog vendor replies: “Don’t you know, change must come from within?”

A small note before I begin: I use the word Divinity or The Divine to refer to the Supreme Being, God, Allah, Jehovah, The Great “I AM”, the Mother Creator of the Universe, Deity, or Herman—whatever you might call the Being you worship.  It is a poor attempt to name something that is as far beyond words as the edge of the Universe is beyond Earth, but humans will have their labels so there we are.  Just making sure that we start on the same page.

I would like to explore the word “meditation” with you today.  Meditation is an ancient practice with its roots deep in the mysticisms of the Far East.  Confucius and Buddha both practiced meditation and encouraged those who sought the truth to seek it in contemplation.  Western culture does not have much of a heritage in meditation.  In fact, it seems like it only became popular in the US when the Beatles did it.  Everyone wanted to be the Beatles so when they talked about enlightenment and meditation that was cool.  It became a fashionable experience, like wearing bell-bottoms or tie-dyed shirts.  And as with many other fads, the concept of it eventually became laughable.  We made it more than it is and then we made it less, and somehow a great many people missed out on the truth about meditation.  It is not the “be all to end all”, it is not a miracle cure or a way to avoid your responsibilities.  It is just a tool.  As a tool, it is actually quite useful—especially when compared to some other fashionable experiences we have shared.

As a way to explore the playground of our minds, meditation has major advantages over, shall we say, illegal pharmaceuticals?  It isn’t addicting, doesn’t make our hair fall out, won’t get us sent to prison and I have never heard of anyone overdosing on meditation.  However, when done correctly, it can (and will) expand our minds, creating altered states of consciousness and giving visions.  The human mind is phenomenally powerful and we use only about 10% of its capabilities.  What would our world be like if we learned how to use more of our brain?  Through meditation, maybe we can learn how to use even that 10% better and with more efficiency.

Meditation is a very specific kind of thought process and requires perseverance to make full use of what it offers.  I suggest the analogy of physical training to learning how to meditate.  When you begin any sport, you have to learn the associated rules and skills for that sport.  Meditation is no different.  There are different kinds of meditation, like transcendental or Zen.  Various approaches require their own technique, but they have one thing in common.  Regardless of the method of getting there, every discipline is designed to focus your thoughts and to teach you how to ignore the distractions of the physical world and your body.  Once this is achieved, then peace of mind and enlightenment are possible.

I follow the Zen form of meditation.  The idea is to clear your mind of conscious thought.  Try thinking of nothing.  It’s very hard!  All sorts of extraneous thoughts appear.  Your mind assumes that you’re not busy and tries to entertain you. It will attempt to impose its reality on you—and its reality tries to convince you that surface thoughts and conscious mind contain the full truth, no need to look any deeper.  Your ego will try to trick you into thinking that you don’t need to contemplate anything; you KNOW what’s right and what’s true.  When you think you KNOW something, that’s when you stop being able to learn.  In the book America the Beautiful, the main character’s life is a shambles.  During the course of her journey to find happiness, another character says these words to her: “You are only telling yourself a story.  Those are just thoughts suspended in a great peace.  Try to relax into right now.  Be here right here, right now, in this moment.  You’re in imagination, Dear, now go to the truth.”  This means that if you can clear your mind of all that you’re so sure of, all that you think you know, all of your perceptions of the world, all that you imagine life to be, then you will become open to experiencing the crystal-clear truth of reality.

By being willing to merely exist, to accept the input of your senses without reservations and prejudices, you allow the wonderful possibility of any potential to be fulfilled.  Literally anything can happen and we should be open to that.  A wise friend of mine once said that expectations are premeditated resentments.  If we demand things be a certain way, if we try to impose our personal view on the world around us, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointments somewhere down the road.  I’m sure you’ve heard the proverb “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”.  I think it should be rewritten to say, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall be continually blessed with remarkable things”.

Zen asks that you give up your expectations, give up selfish thoughts and be open to all the marvelous things around us.  We need to learn how to ignore our ego with its passion for divisiveness, its desire to hold us separate from everyone else.  Separation from others inevitably leads to the idea that some are more worthy than others.  We are not all the same, but we are most definitely all equal.  No one holds precedence over another merely by existing.  We should not let our selfish ego rule our lives; we should be empathetic to life, whether another human or some part of Nature.  We need to find a way to re-connect with the essence of the Universe.  Meditation helps us create a place in our minds that we can use to find our connection.

It definitely requires some serious concentration to focus on…nothing.  I practice Zen to center my thoughts, achieving the balance within my mind that helps me survive the anarchy of normal life. I choose to accept life as it flows.  I refuse to wrestle with the genuine reality of life, trying to control things that are uncontrollable, which only leads to massive frustration and anger.  Besides, reality has a way of winning, every time.

Let me illustrate what I’m trying to say with this parable: The family of the white clouds that float in the blue sky divides itself into two groups: on the one side is the large group of clouds whose goal is to get to the warm South.  They suffer a lot, especially when the wind blows them north, west or east.  On the other side there is a small group that has realized that it is their destination as clouds to be driven by the wind.  They have no goal, or only one: to follow their path, their destination, the wind—and thus they are always in harmony with themselves and the goal.  But at the end of the day all the clouds are at the same place.

We use meditation to center ourselves in the circle that is life.  Centering means to get back in touch with what is truly important.  It means grounding in the sacredness of life, in the Universal relationships and discovering our part in that grand association.  My life used to be chaotic and I doubted my part in anything.  Life is too short to spend it being unhappy!  So I chose meditation as a way to attain balance and connection.  I also found a book called The Little Book of Letting Go, written by Hugh Prather.  I highly recommend it to anyone who feels overwhelmed.  It is a mixture of narrative lessons and personal meditation exercises with a very simple purpose: to cleanse your mind, lift your spirit and replenish your soul.  The very first thing Mr. Prather says is to make your state of mind more important than what you are doing.  He suggests that this one sentence essentially sums up all mystical teachings.  Make your state of mind more important than what you are doing.  What we do, how we occupy our time, the things that keep us busy, none of this is as important as our state of mind while we do it.  This means even our daily chores can be lifted from scut work into a loving reconnection with the Universe as we make our attitudes more important than our actions.  It means, like the joke I told you, that we are indeed one with everything.  As George Carlin puts it, religions tell you to love your god, love your neighbor, love yourself—because basically, it’s the same guy!  And by the way, happiness is a state of mind3

I have a book about Manadalas that has a thought provoking definition of a circle.  It states that the true center of a circle is a point.  A point has neither dimension nor place and exists outside of our world because it does not have form.  We cannot measure it, we cannot pinpoint its real location, we cannot describe it without giving it dimension and then it is no longer the point but merely a concept of that point.  But on the other hand…a point is the ultimate potential, as it contains all that is or might be because any form can exist from that point.  Therefore, a circle is a point plus dimension.  It exists because of the point and is defined by that point, even though we are not able to comprehend the point.

Our lives are a circle and we dance around the center of that life, regardless of what the point is.  It’s what gives us purpose, defines our world and makes us who we are.  Ideally, it is Divinity and the Universe.  It can be money, status, or another person, almost anything we choose to put in the center of our life.  The idea is simply that whatever is the focal point of our life (or the center of our circle) becomes sacred to us and is our god.  That’s what we worship with our actions and our lives.  Our actions, what we DO, that is our truth, regardless of what our mouths may say.  The center of our lives is manifest, whether acknowledged as our god or not.

It’s interesting to note that the Old Greek word for “sin” also meant “to miss the point”.  If we miss the true point in our circular lives, if we try to dance around some other point that we have arbitrarily chosen, we will assuredly separate ourselves from Divinity and the rest of the Universe.  Willful separation from Divinity is a behavior that is neither sacred nor life enhancing, which makes it a sin by almost anyone’s definition.  Meditation helps us to center on the sacred point of life, to dance into union with Divinity and the Universe.

We begin our weekly services with some form of meditation as a way of preparing ourselves for worship.  It may be a reading, a poem, or a song.  Whatever form it takes, it gives us a tool to find tranquility in a world that is seldom peaceful.  It helps open our minds to learning and the acceptance of whatever comes along.  It is a signal that we are entering the spiritual realm.  We need to engage all of our senses and focus our brains on this realm, transcending our physical limitations to gain understanding and wisdom.  Meditation can be the key that opens our minds to being centered, serene and truly happy.

My handy, dandy thesaurus on the computer offered me six synonyms for the word “meditation”; it also gave me four more when I asked about the word “meditate”.  I want to explore how the meanings of these words might help us to understand meditation so that we can more easily reach a state of spiritual readiness.  Meditation is a method for achieving clarity of mind and the more familiar we are with the process, the easier it becomes to use.

The first word the thesaurus listed is the word “thought”.  That seems fairly straightforward.  We know that meditation takes place in our minds; we have to think about it.  It can be a series of thoughts that lead us to a sense of the Divine.  It can just be something as basic as the single thought, “Now I am going to worship”.  It is also the absence of thoughts that can hinder or bother us and prevent us from experiencing Divinity.  Meditation may simply be an adjustment in thought attitudes, going from the mundane daily routine to a conscious awareness of spirituality.  It may be a more complex ritual, involving esoteric positioning like sitting in the lotus, with a particular incense wafting around you, or a special “meditation” pillow.  It can be a memorized phrase like the mantra “Om mane pad me om”—or the writer Erma Bombeck’s favorite mantra, “Paul Newman Paul Newman”.  Although I guess today’s version of that mantra would have to be “Johnny Depp Johnny Depp”, and for the gents, “J Lo J Lo”.  Whatever works for you.  I personally like the mantra “Harrison Ford Harrison Ford”.

The next word was “consideration”.  As a verb form, it is the word “consider”, another way of saying that we have to think about it.  But back to consideration.  We can take that to mean a more emotional response, a consideration for feelings, or the act of being considerate.  We know that we should be considerate of others, but we also need to learn that it’s all right to be considerate of ourselves.  We know that some days we just aren’t able to get into the frame of mind that is most conducive to a state of worship, that our lives are hectic and frustrating and just plain annoying!  We frequently judge ourselves by standards that would we never apply to anyone else.  All too often, those standards are both unreasonable and unrealistic and therefore impossible to live up to.  We need to learn to accept ourselves as we are, acknowledge our less-than-desirable traits with a will to change, and then set objectives that are attainable.  Self-improvement is a noble goal, but we should consider what truly needs to be done, and be as considerate to ourselves as we are to others.  Then we can acknowledge the chaos of our lives and let go of it.  Then we are able to worship in a peaceful mood.

The next word on the list was “deliberation”.  I prefer the root of this one: deliberate.  Not “to deliberate”, like debating something or weighing the choices, but deliberate, meaning purposeful, conscious or planned.  Deliberate, directed thought and deliberate, dedicated actions can move mountains.  Deliberate speaks to me about the strength of your purpose, the sureness of your motive, and your conscious choice.  It is a precise action, no doubt about what you meant.  There is nothing happenstance or “fated” by being deliberate.  You KNOW what you are doing.  You made the choice, you accept the consequences because you knew what they would be, and you move on with what you are doing.  What good is free will if you don’t invoke it?  It means accepting the responsibility for your actions instead of being a perpetual victim of chance.  “To thine own self be true” is a marvelous sentiment, but first, you must know what exactly is your own self.  This requires deliberate and thoughtful exploration of your inner being and feelings.

Fourth word: contemplation.  For me, the very word evokes the sense of awe at seeing something so beautiful, so marvelous, so far beyond the norm, so sacred that the natural and obvious response is to stand silently in reverence of it.  I have contemplated the sunset, the ocean, the Sacre Couer, my children, the paintings of Frederick Church.  I even occasionally contemplate my navel.  To me, contemplation is that “ah-ha” moment when you recognize the Divinity in all that exists.  Like The Force in “Star Wars”, sacredness is all around us, surrounding us, within us, binding us together.  I am aware of and respond to the sacredness of the Divine and the Universe because I am part of the Divine and the Universe.  It speaks without words to my heart, reminding me of that bond.  This is enlightenment.

Contemplation is a process of merely accepting the sensory input without putting your viewpoint all over it.  It is the thinking about something without thinking about how it affects you, whether it matches your couch, how much did it cost, and any of another thousand distractions that hide the fact that sometimes, a tree is just a tree.  Just a tree is miracle enough, what matters anything else?  Life can be amazingly complex, yet frequently it is so simple that we tend to dismiss that simplicity as somehow lacking in meaning.  We seem to think it can’t be profound unless it’s puzzling and difficult to comprehend.  However, nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood.

In Tea With the Black Dragon, Mayland Long picks up a rose that is lying in the street and talks about it to Martha.  He speaks of the symbols associated with the rose, the historical events of the War of the Roses, and the scientific aspects of this rose.  He pontificates for a while, until she takes it from him, sniffs its aroma, and says, “It’s just a rose.” And the book describes Mayland’s reaction as feeling that time is standing still, while a gong resonates within him.  He realizes that this is a moment of enlightenment, a piercing to the core of pure truth, a truth that while plain and simple is still profoundly moving.  The rose doesn’t require any symbols or history to hold within its petals the miracle of mere existence.  In other words, don’t go looking for miracles; you are the miracle.

Contemplation requires that you let go of your sense of time.  When you are contemplating something, you need to exist only for this moment, this unique portion of time.  It requires a childlike attitude to appreciate this moment as being something special, something that will never be repeated.  Our lives are filled with such minutes and so many of us miss them all, caught up in our oh-so-important routine.  It often takes something cataclysmic like a death in our family or an accident to shake us out of blind complacency and remind us that life is but a fleeting thing and we need to appreciate every bit of it.  As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet and most poor (fools) are starving to death”.  Mediation teaches us to view the feast.

The fifth word from the thesaurus was “reflection”.  We’ve all looked in a mirror; we know what a reflection is.  Meditation means to reflect, to use the mirror of our mind to look at our world.  Sometimes our mind is like an old tarnished mirror, reflecting a less than perfect image of what we’re thinking about.  We cannot help but color our reflections with our opinions, our experiences, and our prejudices.  We can only try to keep the mirror as clean and pure as possible, to have the truest reflection we can by living the best life we know how.  Mirrors are used to view places that might not otherwise be visible, or to direct light into dark corners.  In the movie, “The Mummy”, the characters place polished shields in a pattern.  When the last one is put into place, the sunlight from outside is thrown from shield to shield and illuminates the entire chamber.  That which was not visible now stands exposed to the light of day.  Use the mirror of your mind to illuminate thoughts that lurk in the dark recesses and need to be brought out in the open for whatever they are, so that they can be dealt with.  The bogeyman that seems so terrifying in the gloom is nothing but a harmless coat rack when the lights go on.

Another thing to consider about reflection is that different surfaces reflect things differently.  The image seen in a lake or pond is not the same as the image seen in the windshield of a car.  Funhouse mirrors distort on purpose, to shock us with bizarre reflections of our familiar shapes.  What kind of reflection does your mind give you?  Is it a true, “new mirror” reflection of actual thoughts, or a funhouse version of old emotions, negative ways of thinking that are not really you?

A mirror can give us a new angle to see things from.  Think of those mirrors placed in the corners of hallways to show oncoming traffic or how your dentist uses that little mirror to look at your bicuspids.  As Doug Adams wrote in Salmon of Doubt, “(the main character) was constantly reminded of how startlingly different a place the world was when viewed from a point only three feet to the left.”  Move those three feet to the left.  Then use the mirror of your mind to explore this new viewpoint and get some new ideas about your life.  Just remember, meditation is merely a reflection of what we’re thinking about and be careful of taking that reflection as the whole truth.  Know what kind of mirror you have before you accept the images it presents.  Don’t magicians fool us with smoke and mirrors?

Another synonym that was offered was the phrase “turn it over in your mind”.  Sounds like another tool, like the mirror, to get a new angle on an old thought.  Watch a baby explore its world.  It looks intently at everything, and what can be reached is handled, turned over, examined closely and looked at from every possible angle.  It generally gets put into the mouth next, but that is also a good thing, as it uses another sense to learn about this object.  We need to learn to do this with our minds, to examine our thoughts closely, to engage all the senses that we possibly can to really see what it is we have in there.  I don’t necessarily mean the 5 physical senses either.  We can’t touch our thoughts, but we can sense if they are truly ours, or if somehow we are just parroting someone else’s view without personal belief in that stance.  We can’t smell them, but we can sense if they are still true or if they are no longer applicable to the situation or person.  We can apply a sense of justice, honor and honesty to our thoughts.  We can hear them within our minds, and decide if they are the thoughts we want to have.

Back in the good old days when people did spring-cleaning, it was called “turning the house out”.  Everything got moved, cleaned and then put back into a scrubbed and shining house.  How can any place be truly clean if there’s an attic full of trash that no one throws away because no one knows it’s there?  A fieldstone walk may look beautiful from the top, but when you flip those stones over, you’re going to find yucky, crawly things like potato bugs and grubs.  Similarly, surface thoughts may be lovely to think about, all the while hiding nasty surprises.  Confront your thoughts, look at them carefully, handle them, turn them over and look at all their sides, then decide if they’re worth keeping or not.  Meditation is like housework.  It needs to be done on a regular basis to keep our minds as clean (and as cleaned out) as we can.

Turning things over also implies constant movement, a dynamic thought process. Dynamic means ever changing and is the opposite of static, which means no change.  If we don’t stir things up, if we don’t move them around, it’s very easy to become caught in a rut of thinking habits.  We will have static ideas, static thoughts, and static lives.  The only thing sure about this life is that everything changes and if we cannot or will not change as the situation does, we will fail.  Animals that do not meet change in environment through adaptation or evolution become extinct.  The cheetah is dying out and not because of man’s predation, but because it is not an efficient hunter any more.  Its prey animals have developed greater endurance, while the cheetah is only good for short spurts of speed.  The antelopes simply run longer than the cheetah can.  It has a very low kill-to-hunt ratio and it will cease to exist in Nature because it has failed to meet the challenge of change.

Onward and upward.  In the New Testament of the Bible, God tells Mary that she is going to bear a child.  The Bible records her response with the words “she pondered these things…” Pondering is a methodical thought process.  The idea is that these thoughts require such concentration that nothing else can be done at the same time.  We don’t have to meditate for hours but when we do, we should be wholly involved in that sole process.  Wait a minute.  Check that spelling.  Is that “sole process” spelled s-o-l-e, meaning one, or s-o-u-l, meaning spirit?  Either way, we should not try to meditate when driving through rush hour traffic or during our favorite TV show.  We need to focus all of our thoughts on the mindset we are trying to achieve through meditation and not let our external life interfere.  This is not a time to multitask!

The thesaurus offers such synonyms to ponder as the words “brooding”, “thoughtful”, “preoccupied” and “lost in thought”.  Thoughtful is simply full of thought.  A brooding hen does nothing but sits on her eggs, waiting for them to hatch.  This adds the suggestion that pondering holds the possibility of change or something new happening.  Preoccupied obviously means that your brain is previously occupied.  Sorry, no more thoughts accepted as this time.  Lost in thought also insinuates that the focus is mental and not much physical activity is going on.

The last two synonyms I want to share with you are “rumination” and “mull over”.  Rumination always makes me think of ruminants, which are cows and other cud-chewing animals.  Grass is very hard to digest, so they have four stomachs, one of which is called the “rumen”, to handle the long process of gaining nourishment from plant matter.  So rumination of thought should mean a thorough digesting of whatever our thoughts are.  We need to chew them over and let them ferment, so to speak, so as to gain the most “nourishment” from them.

“Mull over” evokes the image of mulled wine, another lengthy process of preparing something.  Mulled wine is wine that has had spices and fruit added to it, and it is slowly and carefully heated to release the full aromas of all the ingredients.  When we lived in Germany, the Christmas season was always celebrated with the Kristkindlemart, a series of booths selling all that one might need for the holidays.  There were Nativity crèches from small enough to fit in one hand all the way up to large enough that Barbie could have visited Mary and Joseph.  There were toys, baubles, glass ornaments, clothing, and trinkets.  It was held in the plaza in front of the Rathaus.  (Side note here: Rathaus sounds like rat house, and it’s a most apt name, since that is the city hall).  As the market was in the open, in Germany, in December—of course there was usually snow on the ground, but at the very least, it was COLD.  The food vendors sold such things as grilled bratwurst sandwiches, hot roasted chestnuts, and gluhwein.  Gluhwein is hot mulled wine and the perfect way to combat the insidious creeping cold.  It warms the cockles of your heart all the way down to your toes.  My grandparents were able to visit us for the holidays the year Liz was born and of course we took them to the Kristkindlemart.  My grandmother talked about the “wurst sandwiches and the best wine” for a long time afterwards.  So mull over your thoughts.  Heat them up, add things to them, stir them and see what happens.  Savor them, taste all the flavors.  Let them simmer on the back burner, and then serve them up.  It’s the gourmet thought process, not a fast food way of thinking.

Meditation should not be a once a week habit, something you do only because it’s listed in the order of service.  Meditation can be done anywhere, anytime, and by anyone who wants to live more fully.  We should use it whenever we want to center ourselves back into the true circle of our life, break out of old habits, or simply prepare for the day ahead.  I meditate every morning as a way of greeting the day, focusing my thoughts and setting my mind in the direction I want it to go.  Through meditation we can reaffirm our belief that we are both surrounded by and filled with the sacred.  It gives us a moment of merely existing, an incredible miracle in itself.  “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  The very act of living becomes an act of worship when we take the time to stand in silent homage, focused on our center point, filled with the wonder of the Universe.

Thank you for letting me share this with you.

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