Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chris Elcock-Portrait of a Meditator

Mark has been doing mediation for over 7 years. It all started when he realised that he desperately needed a significant change in his lifestyle. Indeed meditation has the power to “gradually reshape brain and body, behaviour and attitudes, consciousness itself”, according to James H. Austin, and even to “perfect the human being”, in Klaus Engel's words. One of Mark's purposes was to find a cure for stress: “When you meditate, sometimes you realise how un-relaxed you are.” Meditation has become increasingly secularised through inter cultural exchange, and in some cases, is used as a practical way of engaging life, “for example as a medical technique in the sense of relaxation procedure.” Studies in psychology support these conclusions6. Not only has he succeeded in eliminating stress, he has also learnt much about himself.
Although the process of learning was slow and painful Mark came to realise that pain was part of a natural and necessary process: “enlightening pain is the letting-go of understanding.” It is enlightening because it teaches you that you must “un-learn” how to hold on to pain, and let it flow. These views, far from having any masochistic connotations, are supported by Ariel Glucklich, who, basing his theory on neuroscientific and psychological grounds, posits that we can find positive meaning in “sacred pain”: “Religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging […] to a more fundamental state of being.” Shinzen Young goes even further by arguing that meditation can be seen as a way alleviating pain: “[Meditation] is a way of focusing awareness on the pain and observing it with precision, while at the same time opening to it and dropping resistance.”
More importantly, Mark views meditation as a means of “letting go of everything”. This includes pain, but also material things: “material things are ok, they're even great! But you have to realise that your deepest desire is to go beyond all that.” By beyond, Mark means “beyond the confines of ordinary reality”, to quote Nona Oxhead; but he is also pinpointing to a transcendental state of what Engel calls the “extension of consciousness mostly in the form of phenomena of light cohering with an extraordinary feeling of bliss.” Oxhead sees meditation as “the most prevalent inducement of mystic bliss [in the West].”
Mark described to me one of his typical meditation sessions. “Sometimes I will do some yoga beforehand, and some stretching”. This is a good way to feel comfortable, as he can spend hours sitting there cross-legged - it actually took him several years before he could sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Then he “allows whatever is there to come up and be with what is.” He also underlined the importance of not going on a train of thoughts, an imperative endorsed by Austin: “When the incessant chatter drops, what remains are those few mental processes essential to the present.”
The process of letting-go is arguably the most difficult aspect of meditation, because “we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego”, in the Dalai Lama's own words. The way Mark did it was by trying to focus on the “emptiness, silence, nothingness.” The meditator must try and “become aware of where everything is coming from”. It may be that everything is coming from the void, “the nothingness where everything is possible”, perhaps to attain a state of consciousness akin to Locke's concept of “tabula rasa”, which sees the human soul as a blank slate on which anything can be potentially written. The idea of Emptiness of inherent existence is also something we can find in Eastern philosophy:

“All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn…”

Gradually Mark pursued his quest for enlightenment by developing “forms of meditation that were practical ways of engaging with life”, such as walking, or standing meditation. Kumar's study found out that such changes in meditation were rather common: “as the meditator undergoes changes in one's belief system, values, expectations, and perceptions, one's mediation practice changes.” As a result he is now able to take pleasure in doing ordinary things: “even in doing the mundane tasks like paperwork there is enjoyment.” Hence meditation has become a way not only of increasing self-awareness, but also awareness of virtually everything that surrounds him.
Mark now has a very healthy lifestyle: no alcohol, no tobacco and no drugs. But although this is now a long time ago, he did try psychedelics drugs. When asked if he could compare such experiences to meditation, he replied that the difference is drugs are an “external input”, whilst the process of meditation is one where awareness is spurred from within us. The after-effect can also be radically different: “after taking drugs you can feel like shit”, whereas with meditation, “the coming down is more likely to have an impact on the rest of your life.”
One of the most interesting aspects of meditation that Mark seems to underline, is that it transcends typical Western dichotomies - in his Eastern philosophical fable Island, Aldous Huxley wrote: “Dualism... Without it, there is no good literature. With it, there can certainly be no good life.” - “Everything is different, everything is the same,” in Claudio Naranjo's words. For instance, it goes beyond the dualism of pleasure and pain. It can cause disturbance, uneasiness, but it is all part of the process of “letting go”. Mark sees pains as “a necessary stepping-stone”, which is “part of a whole”. Yet there is also “something that runs beyond peace, something that runs through the nothingness and the matter.” Reformulated in Aldous Huxley's words, “it is neither good or bad. It just is.” Walking meditation is also a paradox, because it can be viewed as stillness in movement, walking without effort. “But stillness is all relative. There is movement everywhere in everything.” These views are share by Austin, who describes meditation as “a relaxed attentive state, an active passivity”.
Finally Mark underlines the importance of living in the now, something he learnt from reading Eckart Tolle. This was particularly emphasised at the end of our interview: “I'd be delighted to talk to you again. I don't know if I'll be consistent, but then who cares?”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, wrote Ralph Wald Emerson, arguing that inconsistency did not matter. Somehow these words now seemed to make more sense to me.


Austin, James H., 1999, Zen and the Brain. Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, 46 (Broadway, 2005)

Engel, Klaus, Meditation Vol.1: History and Present Time, (Peter Lang, 1997)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo,“Self Reliance”, 1841,

Glucklich, Ariel, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Huxley, Aldous The Doors of Perception, 1954

Kumar, S.K. Kiran, Psychology of Meditation: A contextual Approach, (Concept Publishing, New Dehli, 2002)

Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 33-36 (Hackett Publishing Company, 1996)

Naranjo, Claudio, “Meditation: its Spirit and Techniques”, in On the Psychology of Meditation, Claudio Naranjo and Robert E. Ornstein (George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1971)

Oxhead, Nona, Relevance of bliss : a contemporary exploration of mystic experience, London, Wildwood House, 1985, ch.4, pp.56-78.

Tolle, Eckart, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, (New World Library, 2005)

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