The Journey Inward: Meditation as a Path to Awareness
How silence can help us in a noisy world.
Posted November 4, 2018
Just returning from a pilgrimage to India I (Gitte) am still quite moved by the experience. Though my formal role was to teach yoga to a group of young Danish seekers with an interest in multi-religious dialogue, the journey became so much more than that. As many of our young and curious participants discovered it is one thing to discuss matters such as contemplation, ritual practice, and silent meditation, and another to be placed smack dab in the middle of a Hindu temple or a sacred festival. Or to find oneself on a mat in a Zen Buddhist centre in the mountains for days and hours on end. In these settings, there is nothing but one’s own internal dialogue and the body’s changeable language of pleasure and pain and the incoming and outgoing breath.
Though Kabir told us long ago that the abode is in our breath and exists in our search, it is quite a mysterious journey to get to know ourselves that intimately. In fact, it takes a great deal of practice and also an environment conducive to the inner search. It seems in the world in which we now live it is often a struggle to find the time and space to attend to our interior life and to listen to the subtle inner cues without distracting devices or sensory input.
For our pilgrimage group, part of the surprise was the radical difference between the mindfulness they were familiar with from the West and the kind we experienced in the mountains of India. What met us at Bodhi Zendo was a kind of raw and soulful mindfulness — not like the western version, stripped bare of its traditional sacred context and lifestyle practices, but rather the full-fledged experience of Buddhist rituals practiced in a serene, simple and sacred environment. What a world of difference it makes to sit face to face with a sculpture of the Buddha, candles lit and the calming scents of the incense burning – overlooking a beautiful landscape, and flowers which seem to grow in color-intensity and beauty as the eyes opened by meditation is able to take them in.
What our group discovered was that the meditation environment itself was charged with a strong orientation and commitment towards experiencing and savoring the present moment. It facilitated the meditation and held us through the process of befriending our minds. This also included the smells, the sounds and the simplicity of the space. When we are close to nature or in a sacred environment, we are not engulfed in social media or juggling multiple streams of communication, nor are we attending to the outer world with its many demands.
There was no extravagance or luxury, but simplistic and natural beauty. For us, we were immersed and offline for four days. No phone. No email. We were surrounded by simplicity and symbols of the sacred. Instead of attending to the outer world we were asked to have delve within fully so that we could familiarize ourselves with our own mind, our breath and heart.
As a group with little prior meditation preparation, our Danish group did quite well in the sense that no one left, or gave up. We took up the challenge and sat face to face with ourselves and gave in to the mystery of our interior life. On and off the mat tears and smiles readily alternated, and sometimes breakdowns and breakthroughs seemed only a breath apart.
At times, it was the knees or back that refused to co-operate, other times a long- gone memory that made its entry with storm or delight. Sometimes ecstatic and awakening moments occurred and at other times we were plunged into unknown territory at the mercy of our own unruly minds. But the message was always to witness without reaction; to be with what is without either analyzing it further, drawing it close and also without pushing it away or wanting it gone.
For the newcomers meditating for such extended periods felt like a crash course in mental surfing. While technique and practice were required and yet there was also a sense of mystery and awe to the whole endeavor. Some sittings seemed easy and infused with calm, whereas it took willpower to show up to others. Had there been an option these could readily have been replaced with some form of distraction. But overall, everyone felt transformed at the end of the four days, and there was a sense of needing to come back for more – of a journey just begun.
Traditionally this method of silent sitting is a vital part of the continuing exercise in developing the Witness and its reflections. Silence gives us the space and time to listen to the many voices we carry and come to know ourselves more intimately. We also learn to discern which feelings can be trusted and which impulses might need to be contained, as these would lead us astray or cause us to get lost en route. With practice, we acquire an intuitive feel for our inner landscape that can help us in times of need. It is no coincidence that the ancient sages called meditation the fundamental practice for everyday life, and proclaimed it as the primary practice for exploring and expanding the mind and its inner pathways. Or in the words of the words of the great mystical poet:
Do not think my Abode is outside the city
I am in your breath; I am with you.
Kabir says, Oh my dear ones, listen to me!
What you are searching for is with you constantly