Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Alchemy of Meditation

During the Middle Ages, and perhaps long before, there was a secret tradition of alchemic studies. Ostensibly, the purpose of alchemy is to transform ordinary matter into something precious (such as base metals into gold). I don't believe this was actually the case, however. I believe that alchemy is the process of changing the alchemist, in part by allowing them to see the ordinary that is already present in their daily life as being something precious.

In the alchemic process, or "the Work" as it was code-named back then, the material that is to be transformed is placed in a container, known as a retort, which is then hermetically sealed (an act named for Hermes Trismigestus, the patron spirit of alchemy). The retort is then placed over a low flame for an extended period of time while the prima materia, or base matter, undergoes its many transformations.

In the same way, when we sit in meditation, we are creating our own retort. We seal the container by closing the eyes, and then feel the breath coming and going through the nose. There we "cook" for an extended period of time, allowing the transformations of arising, abiding, and subsiding events to take place. What we eventually find is that nothing very special tends to happen in this experiment. Yet, because of our ability to pay attention to these happenings from a present-moment point of view, the common matter becomes something very precious.

When we finally get up from our cushion or chair, and move back into daily life, we bring with us some of this precious material in the form of conscious mindful awareness. Stuff that used to just whizz past us, or which took place just below the level of consciousness, is now known and seen more clearly. Because of this ability to be more aware, we can make better choices when situations arise in our daily life that used to cause us trouble. 

It is always important to remember that these troublesome things will continue to arise in our life no matter how much meditation we practice, but now we can relate to them a bit differently. Like the medieval alchemists, it is not our world that changes because of the Work, but it is we who have changed within the world.


No comments:

Post a Comment