“Refusing to Allow Retreat into Withdrawal” Helpful Advice on Course-Based Meditation

In meditation, the fine points can make all the difference. One of those fine points is how we conceptualize the peace we are aiming for. Another is what we do when our meditation goes off track. In Workbook Lesson 74, paragraphs 5 and 6, Jesus deals with both of these issues. Let’s look at what he has to say.

After you have cleared your mind in this way, close your eyes and try to experience the peace to which your reality entitles you. Sink into it, and feel it closing around you. (6:1-2)

Here we receive meditation instructions. We are told to sink into peace and feel it closing around us. It sounds so lovely, almost seductively so. We are given permission—by Jesus, no less—to forget our problems, forget all the difficulties that close us in, and instead feel enclosed in pure peace.

There may be some temptation to mistake these attempts for withdrawal, but the difference is easily detected. (6:3)

Given the focus on drawing inward and feeling enclosed in peace, it is extremely easy “to mistake these attempts for withdrawal.” “Withdrawal” here means “detachment, as from social or emotional involvement,” or simply “avoiding emotional involvement.” Isn’t that how much of the world tends to look at meditation? As an act of escapism, of avoiding life’s difficulties by retreating to some hazy sanctuary within? Before meditation became so popular, we had the image of the bearded, navel-gazing yogi who was of no earthly good because he had resigned completely from the world.

Jesus is clear, however, that equating his meditation practice with withdrawal would be a “mistake.” In fact, he says he will give us a way to easily detect the difference.

If you are succeeding, you will feel a deep sense of joy and an increased alertness, rather than a feeling of drowsiness and enervation. (6:4)

This sentence makes it clear that meditation is not just viewed as escapism by outside observers. It is also employed as that by meditators themselves. Who of us hasn’t floated off into that drowsy, dreamy, half-sleep state? In the face of our usual landscape of problems, it is so tempting to essentially take a nap.

Yet this half-sleep is worlds away from the state we are really aiming for. This state is drowsy. It is enervated (drained of strength; the opposite of energized). Yet the state we want is filled with joy and “an increased alertness.” It is energized, alive, more awake, not more asleep.

Joy characterizes peace. By this experience will you recognize that you have reached it. (7:1-2)

Now the picture gets even clearer. There are two kinds of peace. There is sleepy, drained pseudo-peace. And there is joyful, alive, real peace. This difference is how you can recognize whether you are doing meditation properly or not. If your “peace” is drowsy and sluggish, then you are withdrawing. If our peace is alive and joyful, then “you are succeeding.”

If you feel yourself merely slipping off into withdrawal, quickly repeat the idea for today and try again. (7:3)

Just understanding this conceptual difference, though, will not keep us from “slipping off into withdrawal,” for the temptation is constantly there. There is something extremely seductive about just dropping the discipline and floating off into dreamland.

Therefore, we need to be constantly on the lookout for withdrawal. As soon as we notice ourselves slipping off, we need to “quickly repeat the idea for the day and try again.” Obviously, repeating the idea for the day is a way to pull our minds back to focus. But note two things. First, the word “quickly.” This seems to increase the urgency of not floating off. Second, “try again.” It’s as if, while we are in the state of withdrawal, we are not actually meditating. So, instead of saying, “Continue your meditation, but from a better place,” he essentially says, “try again to meditate.”

Thus, we need to be ever vigilant for taking the detour into pseudo-peace. And as soon as we see that we have, we need to immediately hit the reset button and have another try at actual meditation.

Do this as often as necessary. There is definite gain in refusing to allow retreat into withdrawal even if you do not experience the peace you seek. (7:4-5)

In response to the previous sentence, you can almost hear us saying, “But I slip off into withdrawal so often that, if I do what he says here, I’ll spend my whole meditation hitting the reset button. Where is the gain in that?” The choice, in other words, seems to not be between pseudo-peace and real peace, for the latter seems out of reach. Rather, it seems to be between pseudo-peace and continually pulling our minds back. And of those two, only one feels remotely peaceful. Why not, then, settle for at least a semblance of peace, even if it isn’t real peace?

Jesus must have known we would be thinking that, and he is ready with an answer: If it’s a choice between pseudo-peace and continually pulling your mind back, do the latter. Pull it back “as often as necessary,” “even if you do not experience the peace you seek.” In this case, the benefit is not peace, but rather the “definite gain” involved “in refusing to allow retreat into withdrawal.”

What is this gain, I wonder? What I see is that allowing ourselves to slip off into withdrawal turns our attempt to wake up into its opposite, into an act of going to sleep. Jesus makes similar comments about forgiveness and psychic abilities. Both hold out the possibility of increased freedom from the bondage of the ego. But both can be misused. Forgiveness can become “forgiveness-to-destroy” and psychic abilities can be used to glorify one’s ego.

Forgiveness is the means for your escape. How pitiful it is to make of it the means for further slavery and pain. (S-2.II.7:3-4)

Those who have developed “psychic” powers have merely let some of the limitations they had laid upon their minds be lifted. It can be but greater burdens they lay upon themselves if they utilize their increased freedom for further imprisonment. (M-25.6:7-8)

You can see in these quotes “how pitiful” it is in Jesus’ eyes for us to turn a means for salvation into a means for “further slavery” and “further limitations.” And that is clearly what we are doing by taking meditation, a means for waking up, and turning it into a means for further sleep.

Additionally, the more often we use it as such, the more we lay down that habit pattern in our minds. We carve an ever-deepening groove in the mind that our attention naturally wants to run along as soon as we close our eyes to meditate. At that point, meditation-as-sleep becomes an ingrained association that is very hard to break.

Instead, Jesus is asking us to make the opposite association. He wants our whole mindset to be meditation-as-waking. He wants us to see it as increased alertness, as energized peace. And thus when we slip off into that sluggish peace, he wants us to respond by instantly hitting the reset button, and doing so as often as we need to, even if we get neither real peace nor pseudo-peace. He even wants us to feel that by doing so we have made a definite gain, a real accomplishment.

In this way, meditation can be the opposite of withdrawal. Rather than using meditation to take a nap in the face of life’s challenges, we can use it to ground in ourselves an alert serenity, an alive tranquility, with which we can be more present to our challenges and more secure in the face of them. Thus, meditation has gone from a means of withdrawal to a way of engagement.

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