(reposted from the original blog. The original is dated Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:37 am
I keep a list of future topics, along with notes on the topics. One of the topics was about how meditation wasn’t all about blissing out, that it often gets difficult.
That topic wasn’t intended for today, and I had few notes under the item. However, I’ve just had a difficult three hour meditation session. And so, if nothing else, the topic is fresh in my mind.
When I say difficult, I don’t mean something ordinary like a wandering mind. I mean disturbing experiences involving seemingly malevolent forces. Nearly everyone who takes meditation seriously will find themselves, at some point, dealing with these problems.
One problem goes roughly like this: a meditator appears to be having an exceptionally good meditation. The meditator feels calm, happy, and then blam! the meditator is overwhelmed with a sense of imminent annihilation and utter terror. The terror may be an isolated occurrence, or this may be the beginning of a problem that affects not only their meditation, but spills out into the rest of their life. These reoccurring terrors are apt to be misdiagnosed as “panic attacks”.
Puzzled about what this could be? Remember the whole point of spirituality is to, as I put it in my very first post here, kill the self (ego, whatever), which the individual perceives as a kind of death, complete with the fear of death? Bingo.
By the way, this problem can happen outside of the context of meditation, in prayer, or pondering philosophy, or any other activity that can bump one’s mind up against something bigger than it’s ready to deal with.
This can be a very tough problem to solve. In one way it’s a good sign — it indicates the person in question has developed very good control of their mind — but they need to take a step back in their practice to work on whatever it is that is maintaining that fear. Stepping back may be easier said than done. So too may be figuring out what it is one needs to work on.
Somewhat easier to deal with, though just as able to terrify unsuspecting meditators, are variations on the theme of “evil spirits”. I put that in quotes because, frankly, I don’t know what to call them, or what they are, and I’m reluctant to call them demons. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what they are, they are unwanted and they are obstacles. This is the problem that graced my meditation tonight.
Tonight I first prayed for direction on how to deal with the unwanted whatever-they-are, and then I plowed forward with my meditation. I can’t give this as a universal formula for dealing with the problem. Sometimes it has been better that I change to a practice that is noisy and distracts from the problem — chanting reading aloud, any other activity involving sound and light and motion. Someone might feel guided to order them away, but if so, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t turn into a mental dialogue with them.
Sometimes these whatevers appear as “friendly” beings. And here’s where the Wild West really comes in. Spiritual cowboys are often happy to accept these “friendly” whatevers as “spirit guides” (ever wonder where they get some of their really bizarre ideas?). It is a good rule of thumb that anything that barges in on your practice is not friendly. It is another good rule of thumb that anything that attempts to impose its will on you in any way is not “friendly”. It should go without saying that anything that causes you pain or suggests doing harm to others or to yourself is not “friendly”. And it is a good rule of thumb that anything operating at a “human” level of consciousness, however friendly it may be, can only limit you, never guide you.
Treat every invisible whatever with great skepticism. I have run across what appear to be genuinely friendly and helpful whatevers. Without fail, they have been highly inobtrusive presences.
If all of this sounds just too weird, do some research. Look at what the major faiths with a mystical tradition have to say about the matter. The guy teaching the meditation class down at the Y might not know about it, but the world’s great mystical traditions know about it and write about it.
Doing without religion doesn’t exempt anyone from natural spiritual processes, no matter what the spiritual cowboys riding the Wild West of “spiritual not religious” may think. Learning to deal with the problems alone is one of those things that puts the “hard” in hard core.