People generally agree that exercise, like meditation, is a good thing. Physically and mentally we feel better for regular physical exercise. Depending on our personal temperament we may struggle to keep a daily exercise discipline and look for every excuse to avoid it even though we know we will feel better for doing it. Or, given a more compulsive personality, we might get so fixated on the exercise that we overdo it and so make it play a more dominant role in our lives than it merits. Enough is never enough. You can always be fitter than someone else.
There are some parallels here to spiritual exercise. There’s the need for discipline and the obvious benefits. But only a very few people overdo it, trying the fast track to get enlightened. These become spiritual extremists and the more extreme they become the further they are from their goal. There are of course also religious extremists, but they tend to be people who are escaping from something unpleasant – a personal problem or a political situation – and they turn religion into a justification for anything they think will help them. Spiritual extremists are not unknown but they are rarer because the stakes – sanity and health – are so much higher.
So it is rare that people get addicted to meditation (depending as always on what you mean by ‘meditation’). The main reason, though, is that the discipline of meditation includes an inherent commitment to moderation and the middle way in everything, including spiritual practice. Meditation is the universal regulator because it attunes us to the spirit which pervades everything and is available to correct any imbalance or error as long as we are open to it. Meditation is also inherently a commitment to be open to reality as it is, not as we write it.
Moderation and openness. The two sides of the ladder to happiness and peace. And every step we take is a deepening of our capacity for love. Let us hope that the 40 days in desert, which will soon be over, have taught us that. If not we can, thanks to the spirit, compress the 40 days into the present moment, now, because it always helps us make up for lost time. That is redemption.
Laurence Freeman OSB