I’m not very good at meditating consistently. I’ve never managed to set (and stick to) a meditation schedule. I’m forever forgetting that I meant to meditate until it’s 10 past midnight, and I should have been in bed hours ago. Or I make grand plans to meditate in the morning when, if I’m really honest, my achievable goals are coffee and shower. And what’s more, I’m actually just bad at meditating. I’m hypersensitive to sounds around me, for one, so a passing car or a meowing cat pops me right out of my head. I have trouble finding a comfortable position that isn’t also a sleeping position. And my mind in general is not very interested in slowing down and staying focused. [I’m told that, like any other skill, much of this is a matter of not having enough practice, and I believe that. Doesn’t help much in the moment, though.]
And yet, there are occasions when everything clicks. When I’m able to feel that I’ve brought myself into a place of stillness, from which I can call out to the spirits of the earth, the sea, and the sky, to speak to the Gods and have the hope of response, to know better my place in the great interconnected web of being.
Last night was not such an occasion. I was angry at the US general election and its results, my back hurt from sitting badly, and the cats wouldn’t stop whining. Every time I tried to close my eyes and feel the power of the earth and the sky, something would pull me out of the it. Even when I simplified and tried to just contemplate the world around me, I ended up contemplating some election result, or somebody’s Facebook post about an election result, or why even an early feeding time was not soothing the cats.
And then I remembered another time, shortly after I begin this journey, when I was complaining about just this problem. (Some things are eternal.) A friend brought up, half as a joke, the concept of the Flame and the Void, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:
It was an odd thing Tam had taught him. concentrate on a single flame and feed all your passions in it—fear, hate, anger—until your mind became empty. Become one with the void, Tam said, and you could do anything. Nobody else in Emond’s Field talked that way. But Tam won the archery competition at Bel Tine every year with his flame and his void.
—Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
On the one hand it’s a laughable suggestion for a simplified meditation practice because, c’mon, it’s a fantasy series. But on the other hand, it feels familiar, matching the idea of empty mind that’s central to our Western conception of Zen practice. Compare this from Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery:
The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.
And so I closed my eyes and stopped trying to reach out, to connect. Instead I turned my attention inward, to the image of a flame floating in the midst of a rich, lush blackness. I gazed at the flame in my mind’s eye, willing it to burn without wavering, Whenever I realized my mind had wandered I fed those thoughts into the flame, watching it leap higher as it consumed them and then return to its still brightness. Instead of recriminating myself for losing focus, my drifting fed the flame I was tending, helping it grow brighter and warmer.
I look forward to the next time I’m able to still my mind enough to feel my connection to the wonder of the universe and the Gods. But until I’m able to return to that point, I’m grateful for the flame that glows in the stillness of my mind and my heart.