from The Theosophist March 1988

Some Thoughts on Meditation

Hugh Shearman

Meditation is an area of endeavour with which there is much secret dissatisfaction. There are plenty of books about it, but many of those who study them abandon them and feel that they were being misled in some way that is hard to define.

It is necessary to ask why anybody attempts to meditate and what people imagine that they are doing when they try to pursue meditation. Setting aside a variety of more or less greedy motives which are sometimes entertained, most people are probably seeking in meditation to sort out that incoherent muddle which those who are at all self-aware can find in what we choose to call our minds.

If we observe the way feelings an images drift through us, and incompatible motives twist and struggle in us, we feel perhaps rather foolish or perhaps quite seriously unhappy. To a small extent and intermittently, we find that we can exercise some control over the stream of images that flows through our minds. We can push aside a succession of images in order to concentrate attention on some task, or we can turn attention to a fresh topic.

Because we can sometimes do this, we hope that, by a similar but more concentrated exercise of choice, we can in the end get some control over the whole process of thinking and feeling.

Many authorities have asserted the merit as well as the convenience of achieving this. There is, for example, a well-known and much quoted passage in the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament which says, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be nay virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things".

While this remains an excellent approach to meditation, it is also true that many people misunderstand it and run into various degrees of trouble and disappointment. The problem was well expressed by a young man who said that whenever he felt, as he put it, very "spiritual" he always had a nightmare afterwards.

Many people have had some equivalent of that experience. They have tried by thought to process themselves into a state of peace, and have found that, although they perhaps appeared to some extent to succeed, there then arose in them a distressing upsurge of tension.

How does this happen and what are we really doing? Take the expression "whatsoever things are lovely". What does it mean to most people? Generally it means something "dishy", a pretty girl, a box of chocolates, an agreeable landscape. Perhaps, if we are high-minded people, we think that it ought to mean noble virtues which could adorn our character, stars which could gleam in our heavenly crowns. But it all comes to the same thing for most people. The things that are lovely are the things that we want to appropriate to ourselves, the things we should like to possess, the things which, perhaps in a refined way, excite our cupidity.

There is, however, what we sometimes call a law of karma. Because life in itself is intrinsically one, anything that we try to separate from it and appropriate to ourselves for our personal enjoyment will necessary involve us with an opposite of that which we appropriate. If we try to grasp wealth for ourselves, whether material or, as we call it, "spiritual", we bind ourselves to the experience of poverty. If we grasp to ourselves the undoubted convenience of peace, we involve ourselves with conflict.

This karmic determinism usually works quite rapidly at the psychological level, and we swing from the "spiritual" feeling or image to the nightmare or to some other undesired compulsive reaction.

If we ask what is the bracket or support from which this swinging takes place, or what is the fulcrum on which our emotional see-saw is supported, the answer is always the same. It is a personal selfhood, a competitively separate selfhood which feels a passionately compulsive need to assert itself, to protect itself and to extend its existence into the future.

In each of us there is this "me" which is allowed to function automatically, making our decisions, selecting our values and involving us at every step in the reactive operation of karma. The "me" is not any specific organ or vehicle of consciousness such as is described in various theosophical books, like the "mental body". It arises from the mind being fixated to the notion of separateness from the rest of life, consciousness in us being self-identified with the contents of the mind and memory.

As the result of past evolution and committing our minds to the task, we have learned to function in this world as individual units; but we have been led to do this as largely unconscious expressions of a much greater whole which contains us. The time has now come for us to open ourselves consciously to that whole. We do not now require to go on cultivating a hard-edged isolation or competitive separateness. Indeed we do not individually have any strict and permanent frontiers, and our individuality does not depend on having them. It is intrinsic.

Our true individuality is intelligent, responsible and protective where protection is necessary. We can depend upon it. It is unnecessary to substitute for its guidance the compulsive fears which arise in a fixated mind bent on self-definition.

This is all a view which is implicit in those various diagrams and descriptions which we find in so many theosophical books. True meditation consists in putting this to the test of experience.

The Voice of the Silence makes that much quoted statement that "the mind is the great slayer of the Real". Later it refers to one whose "mind", like a becalmed and boundless ocean, spreadeth out in shoreless space": The ambitious beginner in meditation would like to change his mind, from its condition of slaying the Real, to that oceanic state in which it can truly mirror the Real.

The problem is that the oceanic state of mind is not a development from the fixated mind. It cannot be achieved on the terms that the fixated or personalized mind lays down or within the values which that mind projects. It is a different order of experience. It can reveal itself only when the fixated and self-identifying mind is laid to rest, and the greater may then come naturally and spontaneously into its own.

That is why Patanjali states that yoga is the stilling of the changes in citta, which we usually and fairly acceptably translate as "mind". The first step in meditation is therefore not to make thought occupy itself with any particular image. It is to stop thinking or at least stop what we have hitherto described to ourselves as thinking.

People protest at this. They say that it is very difficult to think about nothing. But they are not asked to think about nothing. Only in that way can we discover what lies beyond the experience which we have hitherto described as "thought".

If we try to base our meditation efforts upon the order of experience which is protected by the compulsive fixated mind, those efforts are necessary flawed by the characteristics of that mind. Shaped by the evolutionary past, that mind is always dualistic, choosing what favours a supposed separative selfhood and rejecting what seems to threaten that selfhood.

For example, we may have the notion that we shall think "good thoughts". We should like to have in ourselves a peaceful mind, and so we try to impose upon the mind the mind's own idea of peace, the sort of peace that the mind can approve of because it can be classified by it as "pro- me".

This is rather like the effort to make "good karma". In the little essay on karma which is usually printed with Light on the Path, it is said that "He who desires to form good karma will meet with many confusions, and in the effort to sow rich seed for his own harvesting may plant a thousand weeds, and among them the giant". Patanjali records that what we take to be right thought can be just as much a barrier to reality as what we evaluate as wrong thought.

One of the great problems of meditation is that we do not really want to meditate. In what we call everyday life, our warmest motivation in what we do is the consideration that this is something that is "pro -me"; and any pursuit is interesting and attractive when dividends may accrue from it for the benefit of "me". But real meditation involves, not so much setting "me" to one side, as recognizing the "me" for what it is and so dropping or dissipating it. Such an activity, however, offers no heart-warming response to the perpetual query, "What is there in this for me?"

The beginning of a real motivation arises when we experience a deep disillusionment with what has hitherto constituted not only our own motivation, but the motivations which agitate the unhappy human world. The first step towards true meditation is concern and compassion for this vast unhappiness which lies upon humanity, and the earnest desire to fulfil that compassion in a new and effective way.

Meditation also requires the dropping of time as this is understood by the "me". For the "me" in us, life is a cumulative process, in which assets, either material or heavenly, can be gathered and in which images of the true past are mobilized to defend us against the future. Time as a cumulative factor is real enough in mechanical or biological process; but, since real meditation cannot be cumulative or acquisitive, the time factor, as we have hitherto thought of it and evaluated it, falls away.

As the necessary conditioning of our past recedes a little, and consciousness in us becomes awakes to a world or an order of experience that is not given its orientation and value by a "me", the first impression is one of silence, darkness, emptiness. Unity is not made up of a mass of varied separate objects which can be appropriated, that vast field of pretty objects and pretty people which keep "me" on the go. The stillness of inner life is frustration and boredom for the anxious and greedy "me".

The silence, however, can be listened to, and there is indeed a "voice of the silence". There is in the darkness a clear light. It can make everything clear, but it conveys no privilege to those who respond, offers nothing which we, in our separateness and in our isolation from wholeness, can appropriate and take for ourselves. So, from the point of view of the motivation that has hitherto guided us, it is nothing.

This is where the great pathos of religion lies. Through its Founder, each religion attempts to speak to people in the language of what the Gita calls buddhi-manas, the mind that is pure, wide and unfixated; but people understand it only in the sense of kama-manas, the mind that is fixated to the anxious and esurient "me". The result is that religion often becomes unclean and sometimes violent and destructive.

There is great interest these days in meditation and in various forms of yoga; but these are still little more than novelties from which people hope to obtain some personal advantage. And, as the world views such things, there probably is some advantage. Even just to learn how to sit still will probably do people some good.

But there is also some danger, a risk of disappointment and confusion, a debasement for gain, a risk of commitment to something which, further along the road, can blow up in people's faces. The basic flaw in so much of this activity lies in the fact that people pursue their "yoga" for the endorsement and enhancement of that "me" from which it is the purpose of true yoga to liberate consciousness in us. It can be like applying the brake and accelerator at the same time and so can produce considerable stress.

There is also tendency to treat meditation as something separate from the rest of life, a special department, something that we do for a quarter of an hour before breakfast or perhaps on one evening in the week when we are not going to a cookery class. But, if we understand, it becomes clear that we are concerned with what is here and now all the time, in every relationship and situation.

Meditation is not a technique for processing ourselves into some kind of advantage. People who represent it as a technique and want to teach us how to do it may sometimes help to rid an individual of some personal illusion or inhibition, much as a clinical psychologist may do; but , beyond that, we must ourselves be aware of what we are doing and not just be guided by an image in somebody else's mind.

There often appears to us to be a problem of life. Life, of course, is not a problem; yet we see it in that way because there is a problem in ourselves, a knot that requires to be loosened. We imagine that some technique, some effort of thought will untie the knot; but we cannot succeed because thought itself, as we pursue it, is what tied the knot. It is dissipated only by the discovery of what is beyond that kind of thought. So liberation is not an end product of any train of thinking or of any code of behaviour or membership of any school of thought or organization.

The mind cannot still itself. We cannot set a think to catch a think. It is only when there is pure simple perception of what is now, that there is release into lucidity and into love and delight in what is discovered. This is not an arrival point in some process, for it is discovery from moment to moment of what has always been, a recognition and an abandonment of illusion and ignorance.


Hugh Shearman of the Belfast Lodge is an additional member of the General Council of the Theosophical Society.


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