Open to Mystery
The hype around meditation and mindfulness in the past few years has been bananas. It seems like a new article, book, celebrity–endorsement comes out weekly. Fueling a lot of this are the scientific justifications — studies that prove that meditation positively effects physical, mental, and emotional well–being. It does. And if this encourages people to practice, that’s great. I use my uber–basic understanding of neuroscience to highlight for students some of the benefits of meditation.
But not all of the benefits of contemplative practice are measurable. Or maybe even conceivable.
My wise friend Greg says there are really only two things: concepts & mystery. Take a guess with which one most of us are more comfortable?
And it’s not that concepts are bad and mystery is good. Or that mystery is hocus pocus and concepts are verified. It’s not a spiritual or scientific contest. We need concepts (language, metaphors, ideas) to make our way through life. Mystery is a fact; we don’t know most things let alone everything.
There are concepts. There is mystery. Both.
But concepts rule contemporary life and can imprison us in a need for certainty and control. That’s what our culture emphasizes and rewards. That is our collective conditioning (indigenous wisdom never lost the connection to mystery). The above Einstein quote in full: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [One] to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.
We witness that deadness in our culture. The dismissal of mystery, the dismissal of wonder and awe. The distrust of not knowing. Einstein also said this: The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
We must remember the forgotten gift. We need a reclamation of mystery, of what’s been lost or rejected, of what threatens. The deadness actually comes from fear, from our incapacity to stay curious about what scares us, makes us uncomfortable, challenges us. Meditation practice can help us remember the intuitive mind.
And if we need science to make us feel more comfortable with the process, maybe the “science” behind meditation should include physics.
Last month was the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. His work was revolutionary and it brings us face to face with mystery. It’s been 100 years since he told us that space and time, distances and duration are relative — dependent on different observers and locations in the universe. And we still can’t fully get it. He said time is a persistent illusion and also knew that all matter is mostly space… Wait, huh?
We don’t need to understand the math or concepts behind it because even if we did it’s so hard to internalize these truths. It’s almost impossible, we can’t internalize it. We have this perceptual illusion that we are solid, that matter is solid, NOT mostly space. We have this perceptual illusion that time is moving forward… past, present, future – NOT that it’s relative from one person, place or thing to another. Time is an illusion. Matter is mostly space.
Scientists tell us that roughly 95% of the universe is made up of the mysterious forces of dark energy and dark matter. The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5% of the universe. 95% of the cosmos is mystery. String Theory hypohthesizes that there are probably 10–11 dimensions. What does that mean?
Mystery by its very nature is puzzling. It asks us to give up our usual ways of understanding. It asks us to give up control (like we ever had a choice). It insists that we allow for paradoxes. It exists outside language. It presents us with uncertainty and unreliability. It reveals impermanence.
Not things we like very much. So we try and push away not knowing with facts and statistics. We try and hold on to certainty (of happiness, of pleasure, of safety, of solidity, of continuity). We grasp and cling — which of course creates suffering…
Our longing for safety and for what’s comfortable is very deep; it’s hard wired into us. To let go of the usual discursive focus and simply listen, that’s not easy. But our practice is all about that, isn’t it? We can be open and curious about emotions, thoughts, sensations that are moving through us. We cultivate a trust with whatever is arising. Not pin down, not know, not fix. To just be with what’s happening.
Can we open to mystery?
P.S. This post is based on a talk I gave with my teacher Thanissara at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this Thanksgiving. Give a listen here.
P.P.S. I will be going on another long retreat so you will be hearing from me again in March. Happy New Year! May peace & joy prevail on our tiny blue sphere and throughout the vast and mysterious universes.