Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I was standing in the kitchen with two housemates one morning, grabbing a quick bite to eat before work (plain cold pasta and a slice of cheddar cheese, I must admit).  One housemate, a gentle giant from Oklahoma, expressed his frustration at the fact that people usually laugh when he tells them that he's majoring in Contemplative Studies (which essentially amounts to a combination of practical/experiential Buddhism and psychology).   He told us that he usually responds with "Tell me what contemplation is.  You can't? Get the fuck out of my face. (...well, a gentler version of that.)"

Then he said that he wished that meditation classes were required parts of the college curriculum, as much as science or history.  At first, this made sense to me.  Don't all frazzled students need required times in their schedules specifically set apart for stillness?  But now I'm beginning to wonder what exactly that would mean.  Such a requirement could only stem from the current popular fascination with meditation, in which it is abstracted from any religious context and seen as the supreme way to de-stress and center oneself in a chaotic and frenetic society.  Scientific inquiry has shown us the beneficial effects of meditation.  I can't deny that.  These effects are good and wonderful.

But I can't help thinking that non-religious meditative practices too often devolve into the self-centered (interesting that a self-centering practice could become self-centered...).  It seems to me that secular meditation (dare I say nontheist meditation?) focuses too much inward.  It doesn't connect or diffuse.

A few months ago, my friend tried to kill herself by taking too many sleeping pills.  She ended up in the emergency room, completely delirious, with tubes and wires hooking her up to mysterious machines and monitors.  Four of us spent most of the night with her there, and she kept repeating over and over "I'm not supposed to be here.  What happened?  I'm not supposed to be here."  We couldn't tell whether she was talking about the emergency room or earth.  Periodically, she would regain lucidity and express concern for what her parents would think, whether her boss would still allow her to work, what she would tell her professors.

"Don't worry about them," our friend said.  "Focus on yourself.  You need to think about yourself right now."  Everyone smiled in agreement and stroked her hair, her arms.  But I didn't agree.  I thought that self-centeredness was what brought this about to begin with.  "And you need to think about us," I said.  I told her that we loved her very, very much and that she was accountable to all the people who love her, not just herself.

I get the feeling that most suicides come from self-centeredness.  It is an act of supreme selfishness.  I haven't done any research into this.  But I suspect that most college suicides that stem from depression also stem from alienation, that is, the ignoring of the deep bonds of love that connect human to human.  Jesus asks us to deny our parents and follow him.  In him
all are family.  The difficult task is extending to everyone the same deep, inexplicable, instinctual love we feel for our close family.

That night, we were our friend's only family, and God was there, in that room.  The nurses were going in and out, doing whatever it is they do to heal.  But God was also healing, directly through the five of us there together.  When God heals, he opens us upward and outward.   The healing that occurs with popular secular meditation is solely inward.  I understand the usefulness of all these kinds of healing, but you can't have one without the other.  We needed to be there, in smiling quietness, with our hands on her, radiating peace and love and rest.  

The next day, she was moved to a psych ward in another facility.  Coming to visit her one day, I walked there and back with people I hadn't really known before (several miles in all).  It should have been winter, but it didn't feel like it.  The grass was green and fresh, the ground covered with moist maple leaves, and there was a thick fog lying close to the soil.  The three of us really connected on our walk, in a way that went much deeper than our conversation.  We hadn't expected to be healed by our friend, but she did something wonderful to us, she brought something out of us.  It was warm and tingling to my core.  God really works in mysterious ways.

On the way back, we picked a few tiny yellow chrysanthemums and put them behind our ears.  The fog had lifted, and the leaves were moving in currents in the buttery late-afternoon sun.

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