I meditate daily. Okay. Daily-ish. For twenty-one minutes. I like the number twenty-one for meditating. It gives the whole experience an edgy, black-jack feel and reminds me how lucky I am even to have time to meditate.
I’d like to say I meditate to be closer to God. That’s true for some people, I know, and it’s maybe kinda partly true for me. But fact is I meditate more on days I work than on days I don’t, so if I’m being honest, it likely has more to do with work than it does with God. Not to mention this: while I know there’s a lot of wonderful things about God — Love, Truth, Beauty, and the like — I’ve read the Magnificat, and I know how things with God go for people like me. So when I meditate, daily-ish, much as I might wish it were with some high-minded spiritual intent, I think it is mostly for practical reasons, and mostly related to my work.
I am a therapist, and the research shows that patients of therapists who meditate have significantly better outcomes than patients of therapists who do not. So one reason to meditate is to benefit the people who come talk with me.
The other reason is considerably more self-serving: to survive. Being a therapist places me regularly in the presence people in pain, sometimes a lot of it, and as you surely know, it is impossible to be with someone in pain and not feel some of that yourself. So when I meditate, I’m feeling around for an inward posture that will allow me to be around pain without becoming overwhelmed or injured by it. Meditating helps me feel a kind of gentle force, a softened strength, that carries me through the day and gives me half a chance to be helpful.
Imagine a boat drops you off in the middle of the ocean at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’ll come back for you at five. You’re going to spend the next nine hours in the water, without a life preserver, and since you can’t swim or tread water for that long, the only way you’re going to survive is by floating. The water will support you, but only if you relax – not so relaxed that you fall asleep, but relaxed enough that you’re trusting and not fighting. When I meditate, it’s to sense my way towards that state of relaxed wakefulness that my work requires, allow it to settle into my muscle memory, and hope it’ll be there through the day. Otherwise I’m a goner.
The practicality of my motivation notwithstanding, sometimes something impractical and mysterious happens.
I woke up early last Friday, did some reading, and went to the gym. I swam for thirty minutes, then did an indoor cycling class for an hour. Some people call it “spinning,” but I’m not hip enough to spin. What I do is ride a stationary bike in a room with other people while a woman named Becky plays music and encourages us. I don’t eat before exercising – or else I get sick — so I did all this without calories, and I felt a little light-headed by the time the class ended.
After I showered and began dressing, I bent over my gym bag, looking with disbelief for the socks I’d forgotten to bring – dern! — and when I stood up I banged the back of my head, HARD, on the locker door I had left open.
At home, I am notorious for leaving cabinet doors open. I’m not sure why I do this. Perhaps it’s laziness. Or carelessness. I like to think it’s an unconscious proclivity for efficiency. Why waste time closing and reopening a cabinet when you’re going to want something from it again in a few minutes? Or maybe a few hours? As you might imagine, this habit is of some frustration to my wife, and it is possible that bonking my head Friday morning will teach me a lesson and reduce the burden Jeanine feels to reform me, though I must report that at this very moment, as I write this from my kitchen at home, there are two drawers standing half-way open. The cabinet doors are closed, though. Pain is a great teacher.
But I digress. Back to the part where I banged my head.
First of all, it hurt! Ouch! And second of all, I was pretty woozy and had to lean against the lockers for half a minute. Eventually my head cleared and I felt steady enough to finish getting dressed. Or as close to dressed as I could get without socks. I may not be hip enough to “spin,” but on Friday I was hip enough to wear shoes without socks to work.
All this happened before I got to my office. But once there, I sat in my chair, slipped off my shoes, set the timer for twenty-one minutes, closed my eyes, and began to meditate.
I had been meditating a few minutes – noticing my breath, thinking about something, returning to the breath, thinking about several somethings, returning again to the breath — when I realized there was a very large, very bright, very white circle of light right between my eyes, in the middle of my forehead, as close as my skin. It was neon white, if there is such a thing. Spotlight-bright white. Transfiguration-of-Jesus white. There was a small black circle in the center, like an un-dilated pupil, but mostly it was a vast, radiating, lit-from-within orb of whiteness.
I tried to keep floating, not think about it, just breathe and experience it. The general rule in meditation is cling to nothing, resist nothing, but that’s an impossible rule to keep even in ordinary circumstances, and this was no ordinary circumstance.
At moments I was completely absorbed in the light, connected with it, experiencing it, exploring it, marveling at it without being conscious of marveling. At other moments I was thinking about the experience even as I had it: What is this? Is it God? Some sort of migraine related to low blood sugar? Vision quests involve fasting, right? And after forty days without food, didn’t Jesus probably had low blood sugar before he talked with the devil? Is this the photism experience William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience? (Photism is when a spiritual experience is accompanied by some perception of light, color, or aura. It’s also an anagram for “mosh pit,” which is arguably its own variety of religious experience.) Am I having a stroke? Is this one of those near-death-experiences where you see the bright light? Am I dying? At that last thought, I opened my eyes for a second to make sure I was still alive. For the record, I was.
I’m not sure how long the white light lasted. Three minutes? Five? Seven? At some point it shifted to other colors, though I can’t name them or actually even remember them. I continued to sit.
And then the timer went off, and I put my shoes on, and I ate some breakfast, and the day continued.
Some of you reading this may have had a similar experience or have an explanation to offer, and if so I’d love to hear from you. Obviously, I am not sure exactly what happened to me, in what sense it was a spiritual experience, in what sense a biological experience (though in my way of thinking that is an arbitrary and unnecessary distinction). I am also not sure whether writing and sharing this experience will in any way dishonor or diminish it. I hope not.
What I am sure of is this: I was barefoot. I was hungry. I was hurting from a self-inflicted injury. I saw a great light. And I felt so lucky.