Archive for July, 2014

Miserable as Ever

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

I’m not sure there really is such a thing as “the right degree of concentration”, to quote from your message. I understand of course why you use this phrase: we read about such things as samadhi and fana, and we’re perhaps tempted to think—a very dangerous temptation!—that in falling short of such exalted states and stations we’ve somehow failed in our prayers.

It seems to me, however, that a much wiser course is to treat these and similar levels of being and knowledge, levels which the great saints and sages have attained, as a kind of asymptotic “limit” for discerning, by comparison, how immeasurably far away we ourselves truly stand. How close we may be on a given day or in a given session of prayer to “perfect concentration” is much less important than simply seeing ourselves, failures and all, as objectively and dispassionately as possible. To see what is as it truly is: this is an indispensable step toward the final goal of realigning ourselves with What sees.

So I ask myself: am I concentrated? Hardly at all. So be it, nothing new there. But I needn’t blame myself for this fact or feel guilty. I simply observe, taking a moment or two to consolidate and internalize what I see. And then I try again—perhaps for the hundredth time in a given session of prayer—to turn my attention back to the spiritual task at hand. For it’s the turning back of the mind, the metanoia, that counts; it’s this continually repeated effort, whether or not it proves “successful”, which opens us to the transformative power of God. “With men this [concentration] is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Could it be that what you regard as failures are the result, at least in part, of mistakenly thinking you were to have achieved something on your own?

A further observation: could it be that you’re “thinking” too much? Needless to say, I don’t mean to suggest you should sacrifice your intelligence. I was struck, however, when you talked about trying to think more deeply about Christ and His Mother, and about how you then very quickly find yourself “thinking” about other, trivial things. But this is inevitable. Thoughts invariably move through our minds by association, and as long as we confine ourselves to the level of conceptual reflection, even if our efforts begin with a focus on something as high as the Logos or the Theotokos, the workings of the mind will very soon lead us in other directions.

Those saints and sages I mentioned a moment ago, including our neptic Fathers, teach on the contrary that we need to “reposition” ourselves, if I might use this expression, moving to a different plane from that of conceptual cerebration. Here is where the body can prove so immensely helpful an ally. Linking the Prayer with the breath, coordinating the repetition of the Name with some simple bodily movements (prostrations or metanoias), attending to the vibration of the vocal Prayer in one’s chest … these and other such strategies can be extraordinarily powerful aids. For it’s in the tissues of the body that real concentration takes place.

Please keep this in mind as well: effective spiritual work doesn’t necessarily lead to a happier and more enjoyable life, or not at least as quickly or swimmingly as your message suggests you’d prefer! We do not have “God’s measures,” as the Sufis are fond of saying, and we don’t really know what is good for us. What we do know, all of us, is that times of great suffering often come to be seen in retrospect as essential to our authentic spiritual growth. We didn’t like them at the time, of course—no one can “like” what is painful—but we’re now in a position to realize that the incessant oscillation of like-and-dislike is of a strictly egoic nature, and that true and lasting happiness (ananda) will come only when we have transcended this apparent dichotomy and can look with equal dispassion on pleasure and pain.

I’m reminded of a little Zen exchange in which a disciple asks a master, “How does it feel to be enlightened?” And the master responds: “Miserable as ever!” Of course, the true significance of this reply comes in large part in the tone. One can imagine saying these same words with a dejected, bitter voice, full of complaint and self-pity. But in this case we’re invited to imagine a certain twinkle in the master’s eye. Yes, things are still “miserable”: still the aching body, still the mood swings (the soul after all is “woven” of maya, as Schuon taught), still the annoying people in other cars and at the checkout stand in the stores! But the master is able to look at all of this from a distance, the distance of detachment and objectivity.

Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.