It is possible to enter very deep meditative states on false premises. And because of the very nature of meditation — its physically curative, mentally calming, and spiritually expanding properties — it is possible to derive great personal benefit from this “false meditation.”
What do I mean by “false meditation”? I do not mean by this meditation that is mere pretending. I do not mean the kind of put-on zenned-out faux-peacefulness that some people try to project to the world. I am talking about actual meditative states wherein the mind is expanded, time’s meaning often changes, the relationship between body and mind is deepened and explored. What makes the false practice false is motivation and telos.
Self-seeking can poison any attempt at self-improvement. What is the motivation behind self-seeking meditation? It is the desire to be better, to feel healthier, to feel wiser (and not. truly, to be wiser). The meditator meditates the way the vain body-builder works out, with his eyes always in the mirror beholding his own physique almost lustfully.
If one attempts spiritual practice with improper motivation, there will be two potential problems. One or the other, or both.
1) One will not have the determination and fortitude to continue the practice when times get tough or distractions mount. One will lack discipline. A man digging a trench because he thinks it will make his back stronger is much more likely to give up when the weather gets hot than will the man who digs a trench because a marauding army is approaching his homestead.
2) One will reap the benefits of the practice for the wrong ends. Deep, consistent meditative states can have a profound impact on day-to-day life. Whether it is merely a physiological sharpening of the mind happening somewhere on the cellular level (the materialist’s explanation), or it is the deepening of one’s spiritual contact with the unseen world, deep meditation can lead to all kinds of interesting phenomena. One may find oneself naturally being able to predict, for example, where pedestrians will walk on a busy street; or somehow knowing how many brothers and sisters a stranger has — and generally having better memory, intuition, and physical grace. These are petty phenomena, of course. But that is why I bring them up. They are epiphenomena. They should not be, and are not, the true purpose of spiritual practice. But because they are fascinating, empowering, and pleasurable, they can easily become the driving purpose behind one’s practice.
In the case of problem 2, the practitioner will either fall back into problem 1 for lack of a true driving motivation. Or he will continue on a drive to become something like a magician, in the negative medieval sense. He will attempt to develop powers, and indeed may do so on a trivial level. This is a profoundly alienated mode of being. Better to be spiritually dry than spiritually overflowing with self-seeking.
Other-seeking meditation — any true form of other-seeking spiritual practice, prayer included — cares not for flashy “powers.” The purpose of prayer is to listen to the divine, to open oneself up as a vessel for God’s love. This will often (indeed, I believe even should often) lead to feelings of happiness, ease, and joy. A glowing feeling within. But to seek after that wonderful feeling is to miss the forest for the trees. It is one step away from self-seeking.
One old solution to the temptation to spiritual self-seeking has always been asceticism. By purposefully denying oneself carnal pleasures, one tempers the drive for pleasure in general. (Of course this is not the only meaning behind asceticism, merely one important factor.)
Another way to head off self-seeking at the pass is to make other-seeking a deliberate part of the practice. This is most simply done in prayer for others. But it’s also possible to do it through other methods. Breath meditation is excellent, but especially in its modern pseudo-Buddhist Western form, it tends towards self-seeking. It’s a simple practice to transform breath meditation into other-directed prayer. Inward breathing, one can say “God’s love in” and outward breathing “God’s love out.” Where during the “in” part of the meditation one listens for God’s message, God’s voice, God’s love. One makes oneself an open vessel for it. And during the “out” one can visualize radiating God’s love outward to all people, remembering that it is God’s love, and not some special power of one’s own. (Practicing picturing specific people, especially troublesome people, is good too. It mitigates the risk of becoming like someone who “loves humanity but hates people”.)
I don’t intend this blog to be an instructional on meditation practices. I merely offer this one example to illustrate what I am talking about, the difference between self-seeking spirituality and other-seeking spirituality. The more spiritually advanced may well find this example hokey or misguided. The important thing is to remember that motivation matters.