Stop looking for something to happen:

meditation and 'experience'

Making room for something extraordinary
One of the first things we need to learn in meditation is to stop looking for something to happen. And this can seem surprising and challenging at first. It was for me.

A great deal of talk about the “spiritual life” seems to suggest that the best proof of being on the right “spiritual track” – and that something is happening – is to be found in certain tangible experiences.

This is hardly surprising, I suppose. Our materialist, consumerist culture idolises experience. Retailers offer us retail experiences. Producers of food offer us food experiences. And more than a few churches offer us worship experiences. It’s hardly surprising that we might come to believe that knowing God involves knowing that we know God through having some sort of God-experience.

It couldn’t be more different with meditation in the Christian tradition. We don’t look for anything to happen. We are invited to know, as Rowan Williams so beautifully put it, that “creation around you, within you, the creation that you are, the creation you are part of, is all God acting, God loving, God inviting, here and now.”[1] And we accept this invitation by getting out of the way. Rather than looking for anything to happen, we open ourselves to what is always happening, to what is so close, so intimate, that to look for it is to overlook it. It is all gift, all a matter of grace.

From time to time when we are listening to a wonderful piece of music or reading a good novel, we can become “lost” in it.

We are definitely still here, of course. In the moment of lostness we are most decidedly present. We are enjoying a particular quality of hereness, of presentness, which we might call boundless awareness.

Most, if not all, of us will have experienced these moments, that we later recall (and treasure) as moments of precious peace, of deep connectedness, of vivid aliveness.

There is nothing unusual about this. Moments of boundless awareness occur in our ordinary lives more frequently that we might imagine. It’s just that we don’t notice at the time when this happens. There is no self-conscious mind around to notice!

In the moment of lostness, the self-conscious mind falls away and we become (to all intents and purposes) one with the music, one with the novel.

But when we know we are listening, when we know we are reading, the emergence of self-consciousness causes a narrowing within our awareness, a setting-up of boundaries and borders, a retreat from oneness.

Let’s look a little more closely at this wisdom of not looking for something to happen, with some help from the great fourteenth-century Dominican Meister Eckhart.

If we have been taught that knowing God must involve knowing that we know God, and that the best proof of being on the right “spiritual track” is to be found in certain tangible feelings and experiences, then what Eckhart has to say may strike us as baffling. But if we can connect what he is saying with our ordinary experience of lostness, the heart of his teaching becomes immediately obvious to us.

In a sermon called The Nobleman, Eckhart offers a wonderful teaching on the wisdom of not looking for something to happen.[2] In characteristic fashion (a blend of something to wake us up, mixed with a dash of playfulness), Eckhart notes how some people have thought (and it seems credible to suppose) that the flower and heart of joy and peace is to be found in knowing that we know God.

“For if I had all joy and did not know it, what good would that be to me, and what joy would that be?” he asks. And then immediately answers, “But I definitely deny that it is so.”

Our joy and peace, Eckhart says, comes through encountering God naked, directly, without trying to clothe God with our ideas and concepts, without placing ourselves in the way.

We receive our being and all that we are from God without knowledge of this or of anything at all, “utterly calm in God’s being, knowing nothing but being there and God.” But when we become self-consciously concerned with knowing this, knowing that we see, knowing that we know, knowing that we love God, this, he says, “is a turning away.”

“Therefore,” Eckhart notes, “our Lord says in very truth that eternal life is knowing God alone as true God, and not in knowing that one knows God (John 17:3).”

Our ultimate joy and peace are not to be found in self-consciousness, but in self-forgetfulness, a losing of ourselves in God and a losing of God in ourselves – a losing which is, paradoxically, a finding and a coming home.[3]

In the Book of Exodus there is a wonderful passage where God tells Moses he is to bring the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. And wondering what he should say when the Israelites ask him for God’s name, God says to Moses, “tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”[4]

If we come to meditation thinking “I want to experience this” or “I want to feel this” or “I want to be aware of this” then we place an “I” before the infinite, ever-present “I AM” of God.

The way of meditation is a way of self-forgetfulness.

We say our word. We follow our breath. We quietly let go of everything that arises within us. By this simple means we let go of ourselves and open to that which gives rise to everything.

Until all that remains is boundless awareness.

Until all that remains is God acting, God loving, God inviting, here and now.


[2] See The Nobleman, in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. M. Walshe (New York: Crossroads, 2009), pp. 557-564.

[3] Matthew 10:39 and 16:25. Luke 15:11-32.

[4] Exodus 3:11-14.

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