Chapter 16: Meditation and the Unseen Order

There were many wonderful things about that first meditation retreat I attended, back in the summer of 2003. And there was one not-so-wonderful thing: a song got stuck in my head. When you’re on a silent meditation retreat, songs can stay in your head for a really long time, because there’s not much input to displace them. And this song was one I don’t especially like.

It’s by Foreigner, a group that had a burst of prominence when I was in college, and it’s called “Feels Like the First Time.” The chorus begins, “And it feels like the first time, like it never did before / Feels like the first time, like we’ve opened up the door.”

The song was haunting me from early in the retreat, and it proved oddly prophetic. By the end of the retreat, I did feel like a door had opened for the first time.

In fact, there was a distinct moment when it felt, almost literally, like a door had opened and I had walked into a strange new place. It happened during the overwhelmingly and vibrantly blissful experience I mentioned in chapter 4, the one I had while meditating at night amid loudly chanting insects. Though I had my eyes closed, the experience was very visual, and I remember a distinct moment when I felt I’d crossed some threshold and entered a kind of fuzzily defined cavernous room made of orange and purple light.

Before I explain what I saw in that room, I need to expand on something I’ve already mentioned: the fact that I had been kind of hard on myself during this retreat for not being a good meditator. This was actually part of a long-standing pattern. I’ve always been good at convincing myself I’ve made a mistake, at chastising myself for it, and sometimes at pretty literally hating myself for it. For decades people have told me I shouldn’t be like this. They’ve said things like, “Don’t beat yourself up about it.” This has always annoyed me. My feeling has been that you should beat yourself up about things you do wrong. Otherwise you may keep doing them! And let’s be honest, isn’t one of the big problems with the world how many people do bad things and then don’t feel any need for self-chastisement?

One thing about meditation teachers that bothered me from the get-go was their frequent insistence that we yogis not be hard on ourselves. This is such a common refrain that I’ve encountered people who thought “Don’t be hard on yourself” was a core Buddhist teaching, a message that pervades ancient scripture. It’s not. Here’s a passage from one of the Buddha’s discourses: “Monks, true knowledge is the forerunner in the entry upon wholesome states, with a sense of shame and fear of wrongdoing following along.” You will have to look a long time to find a mindfulness meditation teacher in modern America encouraging students to feel shame.

But I digress….