In 2022 I ran a series of six Zoom meetings over three months, for magicians who wanted to develop their meditation practice. This article makes use of the notes from those sessions.
What do you hope to gain from meditating?
What is meditation for?
The following mind-map gives a few answers. Can you think of any other reasons people meditate?
AMBUSHED BY TRANSFORMATION
Let’s get through the Health and Safety stuff first.
The mind-map above shows how different styles of mediation connect up. I put this together because people sometimes get into meditation without realising how powerfully transformative it can be.
For instance, someone might start doing basic mindfulness practice to relax and overcome anxiety. In most cases, it will help in the way they wished for. However, in a small percentage of cases, they might find they’ve got more than they bargained for.
It’s not hard to find scare stories about people having dark experiences after prolonged meditation practice. These are in a minority, certainly, but the fact they exist at all shows us something about the nature of meditation and about how it is currently packaged.
To present meditation practice simply as a relaxation technique is not to tell the whole story. There are reasons of course for this short cut - everyone’s in a hurry, there’s no time to explain and the situation is fairly urgent. But also and more importantly our dominant worldview - Scientism - has no respect for any experience that isn’t measurable. So the mainstream doesn’t even have a language to talk about some of the deeper experiences that meditation may provoke. For that, we need the discourses of mysticism or magic.
These deeper levels open up for some people over time. With daily practice, you’re bathing every day in the layer of consciousness immediately underneath the babble of your narrative self. Eventually this will move your mental centre of gravity towards this level. This means the metaphysical picture of the universe, of reality, you've unconsciously lived by will be challenged. You can get ambushed by deep transformation, as a result of the self-undoing features of mindfulness and related styles of meditation (see mind-map).
This is not in itself a bad thing. It is after all what meditation is for in mystical contexts. But it can be emotionally challenging - all the old imprints you've got, all the thinking patterns that stop you making that shift of perspective will eventually arise and need to be dealt with. Magical work and a community of magical discourse - the equivalent of what in eastern traditions is called a sangha, a community of seekers - can help a lot. As may psychotherapy if you are lucky enough to find a therapist with spiritual insight.
STARTING OUT IN MEDITATION
In my mid-20s I took up Transcendental Meditation. This was my first esoteric practice, at least as a daily thing that didn’t rely on psychedelics. It might have changed, but in the mid 1970s when I did it, you went along to a centre, offered a flower and some money, and got given a whispered mantra. You had to vow not to reveal the mantra ever. Years later, someone posted up all the mantras and the method used to decide who got which one.
The technique is or was sold as a twice-daily relaxation practice. You do the mantra, it dies away, you come back to it. The thoughts and feelings that come up get kind of processed and you relax more. So it’s adjacent on my diagram to mindfulness, though you’re not choosing a type of sensation to bring yourself back to, as with Buddhist styles of mindfulness practice, but a given mantra.
I haven’t used that mantra for decades. It’s a valid technique, it worked for me to relax myself in the daytime and it did increase my interest in inner work.
There were other levels to the TM organization. My friend got into it as a cult, taking expensive courses where they promised you’d learn mantras or something similar which, basically, were magic. He got all glaze-eyed for a bit but seemed to recover.
My next practice, not long after that, was Liber MMM (1), the Novitiate syllabus the IOT used at that time. This involved some months of daily magical practice, including sitting in asana, developing pranayama and cultivating thought-awareness, pratyahara. In other words, not dissimilar to Crowley’s interpretation of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. This represents the foothills of meditation practice; that training scheme, Liber MMM and its successors, is supposed to be practiced diligently enough to stabilize your attention for doing sigils and engaging in magical trances. It also helps develop a certain mental steadiness, which will prove very useful. This was a really worthwhile practice for me.
In 1991 I took up connected breathwork (CBW) (2). This is effectively a scheme of meditation, but it is different because it’s done in a state of high internal energy and often high emotion. In other words, it’s impossible to be bored when you’re doing CBW, it’s a rollercoaster ride. Boredom was of course one of the things that had limited my interest in classic sitting meditation, as it is for many would-be meditators.
Years later, I realised that boredom is part of the point: you need to sit through periods where you are really bored in order to understand that you are manufacturing boredom because you refuse to pay attention to what is actually happening in your inner world. If you meditate, then the idea is to immerse yourself in not-doing. This can be disturbing, as I noted above.
This realisation only came to me much more recently, after I’d vowed to practice daily. This was the stage when I took Alan Chapman as a meditation teacher. He was someone I’d already known for years when he had his spiritual awakenings, so I saw him go through a process and saw that it was a real thing, and worth taking seriously for myself (3). What I do these days is like Chapman’s ‘Fire’ contemplation, insofar as it consists of watching thoughts then knowing the continuum from which they arise, then letting that and the phenomenal experience become a third thing.
My CBW experience is still useful in this kind of meditation. If my session starts with a massively skittish mind, or emotional shadows begin to surface, I move into CBW until my attention stabilizes.
If I was to advise someone who is completely new to meditation, I’d probably suggest going along to a Buddhist centre where they could at least get some basic sitting experience under their belt. In UK they do a lot of free sessions for beginners. Then I would probably get myself a teacher, one whom I was intuitively drawn to.
STAGES / LEVELS OF MEDITATION
Please note that the following descriptions are not instructions for meditation. Neither are they meant as a guide to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs schema. There are some advantages in using a popular model for discussion of personal experiences - it’s a starting point, a common language. These statements and definitions are based on my own experiences - I’ve tried to deconstruct some aspects of what I do, and to apply Patanjali’s model to them.
I’m not going to talk about Yama and Niyama - that’s a whole different area of discussion. I’ll start where most Western commentators do, with Asana and Pranayama. The purpose of learning to sit still is to reduce input from our postural muscles. The purpose of Pranayamais twofold. Firstly, slower, deeper abdominal breathing is more efficient, so you can lengthen the breath cycle. CBW teaches us that abdominal breathing is also less productive of emotion than chest breathing. So overall, the system calms down while you are still alert and fully conscious.
This is however not the only useful thing about minding your breathing - it can also become an anchor for your momentary awareness. In Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation you don’t try to make your breathing do anything different at all, but simply pay attention to some feature of it, such as the air passing through your nose. This awareness acts as an anchor to return your moment to moment awareness to again and again, when it inevitably gets lost in internal monologue.
Patanjali identifies four stages to the inner process of meditation. The first is Pratyahara, often translated as thought-vigilance. In my experience, there’s a stage about 5-8 minutes in, where the usual internal monologue starts thinning out a bit and you start to notice your internal mental state more. This is Pratyahara - withdrawal from thought, awareness of thoughts as something other than what you are currently lost in. You are in the observer position, rather than just being swept along by your internal monologue.
The next is a deep absorption in the structure of moment-to-moment experience. This is very hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It is beyond mere awareness of thoughts, more of an awareness of the dialectic between thought and emptiness. This I think of as Dharana.
Dhyana is where that dialectic between thought and emptiness creates in turn a new state, a new level opens up beyond the dyad.
Samadhi is where deep insight as to the nature of reality proceeds from the experience of Dhyana.
PRACTICE AND CONSISTENCY
One of the main messages I’d like to get over in this short piece is: Practice daily. I know, you’ve got a life, you’ve got demands on you. But if you make time for 20-30 minutes of meditation practice daily you will reap the benefits. This applies particularly to magical practitioners: you need a practice that gives you the ability to get through hard times without losing it too much. When you reach rock-bottom, you will really appreciate your rock-bottom meditation practice!
Consistency takes effort. From time to time you’ll just see no point in the chore of the next sit. But you will find eventually that no sit is wasted, no sit is worthless, even if you don’t seem to be getting anything out of it at the time. It took me about six months of daily practice to get this, to really get a taste for it, to the point where I really feel deprived if I miss one.
One of the most useful things you can do to enhance your practice is keep a record. Log your sits, with a brief comment or two. If you’re not already keeping a magical diary, start one with your meditation record. This practice has a number of functions. For one, it helps you practice daily. Another is that it helps you learn to articulate what happens in your inner work. Still another is that it gives you something to look back over and see how you have changed.
I go a little more into what we are actually developing in regular meditation below.
MEDITATION AS A SET OF SKILLS
What is it we are strengthening with our daily efforts? Because it does feel as if we are strengthening something, increasing some quality in ourselves.
One thing that is often mentioned by meditation teachers is equanimity. This consists of a calm acceptance of what is actually happening, in the present moment.
If it's good, enjoy it.
If it's bad, still pay attention to it on its own terms, don't try and make it good, it will pass, like the good feeling did.
If it's banal, don't try and make it interesting. It too will pass.
In a sense, equanimity is an ability to let go, to trust our immediate experience.
Another quality that increases is the observing capacity, the ability to just watch experiences happening. This is of course very closely related to equanimity. The observing capacity enables us to break into the sequences of automatic responses that are triggered when we like or dislike something. Once we can recognize our triggers, and see how the sequence progresses from one feeling or thought to the next, we will have some degree of freedom about that sequence. Instead of just being swept along helplessly into the next emotional sinkhole we can sit with equanimity through the unpleasant feeling, knowing it is passing anyway. That in turn enables us to change our programming, and thereby our experience and behaviour.
At the start of this article I mentioned the series of meetings I ran in 2022. Next Spring, 2023, I intend to start another such series. If you’re interested, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
British Isles IOT training programme is very briefly outlined here: http://iotbritishisles.com/tag/novice/
(2) There are some CBW resources on my website at: https://chaotopia.com/coaching-mentoring/
(3) Review of Magia: https://chaotopia-dave.blogspot.com/2021/06/magia-teachings-of-alan-chapman.html
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