“But of the tree of knowledge . . . thou shalt not eat of it”
The Book of Genesis
The spiritual discipline I cobbled together for myself in my late teens, and which has sustained me now for well over fifty years, has four major components: yoga, meditation, vegetarianism—and a code of behavior that comprises compassion and harmlessness, a concept known to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains as Ahimsa. (It wasn’t until long after I had pieced these things together that I came to understand that long ago, in places like India, the single term “yoga” actually encompassed these, and many other precepts. Today though, especially here in the west, yoga has come to connote primarily a set of postures and breathing exercises, devoid of other considerations.)
Of the four components that have become the foundation of my personal spiritual practice, the one that proved most difficult for me initially was meditation. I remember first encountering the term “meditation” in old yoga books, when I was a still a boy. These brief references to meditation alluded only to its benefits, they mentioned nothing about how it was actually practiced.
So, meditation seemed to me, then, something utterly mysterious and alluring. Here was a way of manipulating the mind, so that I could see God. But how, I wondered, was this accomplished? In my musings, I imagined that meditation must consist of extraordinarily complex mental convolutions and gyrations—labyrinthine cerebral reckoning akin to that of advanced physics or calculus—to achieve such an unfathomable feat as spiritual awakening.
But when I investigated further, and learned that meditation was, in fact, exactly the opposite of what I had envisioned—that it sought to still the mind of thoughts—to make it an empty vessel, so to speak, to be then filled with mystical energy—I was dumbfounded.
Just stop thinking?
That simple trick was all there was to this powerful and obscure practice called meditation?
It seemed absurd. I honestly couldn’t believe it. It appeared far too easy.
Until I tried. And found it nearly impossible.
I was a gifted student—I’d been thrown into advanced classes and had even been skipped a grade—but now, no matter how hard I worked at it, I couldn’t pause those pesky thoughts (thoughts for which I’d been so richly rewarded and praised in school) for even a few seconds. How was this happening? Why was it so difficult?
Eventually, not with the sheer force of will with which I tried at first, but with patience and calm and a great deal of practice, I learned to meditate. And as I became able to sink into the mystical mindset on a regular basis, the experiential aspect of the spiritual discipline manifested, and the practice became even more real and intrinsic for me.
But the tug of the Judeo-Christian religions in which I and all my friends had been raised, lingered inside me—not so much viscerally, but very much so intellectually. Why were these beliefs so meaningful to so many people? Why did they not resonate with me at all? Was there some connection I could find, between them, and the path that I had chosen? If there was, the gestalt would make more sense to me.
In college, although I majored in English Literature and Creative Writing, I threw together an informal, undeclared minor in religious studies. I sought out classes anywhere I could find them. I discovered comparative religion classes offered in the philosophy department, the sociology department, the anthropology department, and the psychology department. The German department taught the novels of Hermann Hesse in translation. Perhaps my favorite of these classes was in the English department—it was called The Bible as Literature.
My first breakthrough meditation experience had occurred during the summer when I was nineteen years old, and I took the Bible as Literature class almost immediately thereafter, when I returned to school for the first semester of my junior year.
It was in the first week of class, as we examined the creation myths and the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, that a profound link between the Eastern and Western approaches to spirituality became evident to me.
And it seemed appropriate to me that this essential shared truth should be presented in the very first story of the Old Testament, the foundation upon which the entire Bible would then be built.
Once Eve and Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
That, it seemed to me, seized upon the philosophical dilemma that all humans face in seeking spirituality. But none of the standard interpretations we were offered in class were in line with what the story meant to me personally.
Our professor had suggested that the fact that the Bible referred to it as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil should not be taken too literally, because in that time, “good and evil” was a colloquial way of referring to “everything” or “all things.” The tree symbolized knowledge in general.
As we pored through scholarly tracts on why God would seek to prevent humans from seeking knowledge, none of them postulated what now appeared obvious to me as someone who meditated: Our cerebral activity—our constant thoughts—block us from experiencing the spiritual aspect of the cosmos. Knowledge—thinking—is the impediment, not the vehicle, to attaining the mystical sensibility.
But knowledge and thinking still remain vital and something to be sought after and cherished. So, humans desperately require knowledge, but also need to know how to turn it off at times.
As always seems to be the case, it is a duality—it demands that we carefully balance and calibrate to find our equilibrium.
But more than that—we are, in fact, capable of achieving a mindset where this duality is erased—where the material and mystical realms meld into a unified and powerful gestalt.
This is the goal of a lifelong spiritual discipline.