The Fifth Door: Transcendence Complements Engagement




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hen I first learned to meditate, it had a profound effect on my way of thinking. In a meditative state, I was able to lift my consciousness outside of my ego, separate myself from my own thoughts and feelings. The sights and sounds and scents of the world were no longer things I had to interpret and react to, they were allowed to just be. When I was learning to meditate, I approached it in the usual kind of way: finding a time and place free of distractions, closing eyes, sitting still. This sort of ritualized preparation gives you a head start, but reducing the external stimuli that might distract you and pull you out of a meditative state.

But it wasn't long before I "got it", and could enter a meditative state whenever I chose to do so. Once I had had enough experience with it to know what it felt like, I could more or less turn it on or off like a switch. It amuses some people when I confide that one of my favorite places to meditate is a crowded airport. That's an environment full of things that impinge on the senses: a veritable ocean of sounds, shapes, and movement. Yet what makes these things distracting is that we habitually interpret them and seek out their relevance to our personal ego agenda. If you don't interpret the sights and sounds, but just allow them to be present in your awareness, then a busy airport is really no different from a quiet, darkened room with soft music playing.

There's nothing quite like the peace of mind that comes from lifting out of the concerns of the ego, and just letting the world flow on like a swirling filigreed dance. From that vantage point, it is very easy to grasp the essential wisdom of many of the worlds mystical traditions, that the world is an illusion, a play of maya to distract the senses and capture the attention of the unenlightened. When I return from a meditative state, I often feel that my problems and concerns have been put into perspective. I can given them some attention without being overwhelmed by them. It's like my mind has been cleansed, and I can place my own thoughts lightly on the blank background.

After some time working with a meditation practice, I found that something unexpected was happening. Increasingly often, there were moments when I would feel much more connected with the world than ever before: a moonrise would bring me to tears, autumn air on my face would bring me into full and complete presence, a friend's face would become suddenly rich with meanings. Rather than going to a place of blissful detatchment from the world of the senses, I would be swept up into a state of blissful attachment, fully engaged in the world, and unable to see it as anything but fully and ecstatically real.

Most religions and spiritual paths harbor a tension between the poles of transcendence (rising out of the world and experiencing a greater spiritual reality) and engagement (actively participating in the world, perhaps with the goal of making it a better place). Some philosophers of religion have suggested that this is because religious begin with a core mystical experience or insight, but then become co-opted by social authorities with a more pragmatic agenda. In this view, institutionalized religion's emphasis on rules of behavior and world-bound activities holds people back from the mystical transcendence they ought to be pursuing as spiritual beings.

There's some truth in that. Mystical transcendence is not a state that everyone can get to easily, and it is notoriously difficult to maintain the mystical perspective when you come back down and get involved in life again. It's hard to describe and hard to teach. And because the transcendent perspective makes the rules and customs of life seem arbitrary, perhaps even trite, it is something of a threat to the social order. To put it cynically, unenlighted people are easier to manipulate, and avoiding enlightenment is a path of least resistance for many.

On the other hand, my own experiences of blissful engagement make me question the idea that mystical transcendence is somehow the one and only spiritual truth. I'm not enough of a gnostic to believe that the physical world is somehow and evil distraction contrived to keep me from understanding my true spiritual nature. In my own experience, mystical transcendence enriches worldly life, rather than discrediting it.

I think there is a lesson to be learned from nautre-based religions, many of which conceive deity as a complementary pair: a sky-father and an earth-mother. The sky god is an icon of transcendence, looking down on the world from his lofty height, aloof and untroubled by its chores and labors. The earth goddess is fully present in that business of living; she is the soil under the farmer's fingernails.

Western culture took a strange turn when ancient Judaism became monotheistic, and the transcendent sky father became the one and only face of deity. Physicality became wrong (or, at least, a seductive distraction). The soil became dirt. It has been helpful to me in my own spiritual work to strive toward restoring a more balanced, healthy understanding of the relationship between transcendence and engagement.

Page Two: Stepping through the Door

Seven Doors is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters