On Meditation, the Ego and the Soul: An Interview with author Laurie Conrad by Diana Souza. October 30th, 2004. Ithaca, New York. Laurie Conrad is the author of Realms of Light, published in 2009. She is also the author of The Spiritual Life of Animals and Plants, which was published in 2003. Two new books, Meetings With Angels and Other Divine Beings, and We Meet in Dreams, , are scheduled for publication in 2010.
Q Laurie, could you please comment on this sentence from your book Realms of Light: "In this brief life, we are trying to line up our small ego with the soul and its vision so that they work together as one." Can you talk to us about the basic difference between the ego and the soul?
L I think one of the main goals of our life on earth is to align our personal vision with the soul's vision. The soul's vision is already very much in alignment with the Divine, with God's vision for us. And yet, here we are in this body which contains the ego. Ego, in the sense that we are speaking of now, means all our perception. Any of our thoughts, anything we perceive is considered ego - which includes our perception that we are the body. So this definition of the word "ego" is a very different definition than the man on the street's definition of ego, or even a psychologist's definition of ego.
To say that our real goal is to align ourselves with the soul's vision, is to say that our real goal while on earth is to find the soul and align ourselves with that. To stand there, to identify with the soul. Even though we are in this human body, with its physical brain that gives us thoughts and our perceptions of the world. This ego would lead us to believe that we are the body and that the physical world around us is ultimate reality - the only reality. Those ideas are given to us by the human vehicle, the human brain’s perception. On the spiritual path, we are trying to get beyond that perception, we are trying to identify with the soul instead of identifying with Laurie Conrad or with Diana Souza.
Q So the soul is the part of us that belongs to the divine forces, the divine reality, the higher reality?
L The soul is actually our true self. It is that radiant, self-radiant part of us that exists here on earth, but will also exist after our life on earth, in other realms. It lives on. It is immortal in that sense. It will live on for eternity, eternally.
Q So whatever we can do to clarify our connection to our soul, that is an accomplishment that we can claim for eternity?
L Well, the idea of enlightenment, or sainthood, is really two-fold. One is that you can better help others on earth. You can help people as a saint in ways that you could never help them as a kind, but ego-oriented human being. In an enlightened being, a saint, that connection with the Divine is so strong and so constant, that you could say the saint is the spokesperson for the Divine. That Divinity is coming through the saints, is radiating from them into the world.
In terms of our own personal reasons for seeking enlightenment or sainthood or liberation - to be liberated means that we are liberated from the cares of earth. You can have heaven on earth. You don't have to wait until you die and go to heaven to be in heaven, to be in that Divine Presence, that Divine refuge. You can have that while you are still here on earth.
If you study the lives of the saints of any religion, it really did not matter to them where they were or what their given task was. It did not matter to them because they were living in, they were enveloped by this Divine presence. And there is no other way, I don't think there is any other way to truly live with a capital L. The true Life that Christ and the prophets speak of. Otherwise, we are going to constantly be falling into our emotions, our thoughts, and the negativity around us and within ourselves. We are not going to really find happiness or peace. True Life is something most people could not even envision.
Q So the emotions, the thoughts and the negativity, are all those part of what the ego indulges in?
L Well, the ego actually encourages them and produces them. Those thoughts and emotions are not our true self or state. If you read the writings of any of the saints of the various religions - they will all say, in one way or another, and in their own vocabulary - that our true and natural state is the pure state of the soul. We have just forgotten, or this truth is hidden from us. They will also say that this physical reality is not ultimate reality.
Q. So how would you suggest the reader of this interview get their ego out of the way so that they could get in touch with their soul? Meditation, prayer?
L Meditation, prayer is always a good answer. But as we talked about earlier, understanding the nature of the ego and having spiritual practices to help you whittle it down can also be very helpful. Philosophic training can speed the process up. The philosophic study helps the meditations and the prayer life. The prayer life and the meditation helps your study. It speeds your progress, and it can also prevent you from making some mistakes on the path. There are plenty of pitfalls on the path. It is not hard to take a wrong turn and go in the wrong direction for a while.
Q Those who have not yet meditated think it is a boring exercise. Yet in that emptying of the mind of normal thoughts arises the opportunity for true mystical experience.
L Yes. Thoughts actually get in the way of mystical experience. Except for prayer, you could call all your thoughts distraction. We get so caught up in our thoughts, which then cause emotions which lead to actions. And that is most of our lives, that is how we live our lives. When we set aside a certain amount of time each day for meditation, we are trying to let the mind become still. And in that stillness can come mystical experience. I don't know that there is any other way to get there. I've never heard of one, unless you have a very deep prayer life. If most of your life is prayer, then you are essentially meditating.
I think from the outside, to see someone sitting there for forty-five minutes or an hour without moving - can appear like a boring exercise. When we have those inner connections with our own soul or the Divine itself, it is an inner experience. It will not show from the outside, because you are enriching the inner life. If you can stay in the spiritual heart or in that spiritual place in the head while you are in meditation or contemplation, and be there deeply - new worlds can open themselves up to you. New consciousnesses, and the experience is anything but boring.
In fact, anyone who has had a deep meditation will tell you that there is no experience in the outer, waking state world, that can compare. And to find words for that experience, I think, would be almost impossible.
Q Since meditation is about sitting silently and trying to have no thoughts?
L We would have to be careful with saying that. We do not want people to read this interview and then empty their mind of thoughts and sit there for an hour. That is not meditation. In fact, that can be very dangerous. There is a specific technique to mental prayer, and that method should never be discussed in a book or interview, because meditation can be dangerous if you do not have a good teacher.
If you just sit there and empty your mind of thoughts, without knowing how to properly meditate, then you will just be sitting there with your mind emptied of thought. That is not the goal of meditation.
Q So you're saying: don't try this at home?
L Do not try it on your own.
Q Opening up to that degree and just leaving yourself exposed?
L Yes. You do not want to sit there for an hour in a blank state. St. Teresa of Avila, in one of her books, told a story about one of her fellow nuns. The nuns in the convent were happy and excited because one nun had been in a thought-free state for nine hours. St. Teresa just scoffed at the fuss and said that it was a useless achievement. All it signified was that the poor nun had sat there without a thought for nine hours.
Q Didn't Saint Teresa of Avila call meditation the prayer of quiet?
L Yes, and she also called it mental prayer or contemplation.
Q Although meditation in the conventional sense means just concentrating on something, but that's not really what you're talking about either, is it?
L No, this is a specific technique that is actually used in the monasteries and convents of many religions. And in most of those religions, it is only within our lifetime that it has been made available to anyone outside of convents and monasteries.
Q I didn’t know that.
L It is the first time in the history of the world. Previously you had to be a nun or a monk of some religion to get these teachings. So we are very fortunate.
Q I wanted to tell you about someone I knew who was critical towards me for being a meditator. He said "the last thing you should be wanting to do is emptying your mind." He said, you know, "what good is an empty mind going to do you, you're just going to become a slacker."
L Well, actually I agree with that. Unless you're taught how to meditate, you should not just sit around with a blank mind. That is not the road to spiritual enlightenment. But your friend would have to be taught to meditate, and then he would have to try it for himself. You cannot just explain it to another person. It's not explicable. We are talking about an inner life experience, a mystical experience.
Q I think there are probably people who would read this interview or who would listen to this interview and think "I wish I had a teacher". Where could these people even begin to find a teacher for meditation?
L They say if you inwardly ask for a teacher, one will show up.
Q If you know anyone who meditates, ask them where they meditate and do they have a teacher and –
L And if not, maybe even check the newspaper under events and classes. I have taught people by e-mail. If possible, it is far better to have a teacher who can speak with you and be in the room while you meditate.
Q So let's say if you went around checking out some different meditation teachers, what would you recommend, would be a good way to tell if you've found a good one or not?
L Well, that is a very important question. Meditation teachers are like lawyers, or dentists or piano teachers. There are good teachers for you and poor teachers for you. My advice: talk with the teacher and then look at the other students and their lives. Do they seem grounded to you? Are they leading productive, spiritual lives? Are they giving, selfless people? Are they living the philosophy or the spiritual teachings that you believe in?
There is also an instinctive rapport and recognition that we all have for each other; not just for teachers, but just in general. I think you will know. If a little inner alarm bell goes off, I would look for another teacher. And if you begin studying with someone and your life suddenly gets worse or you feel worse, perhaps unbalanced, or strange things begin to happen - or the teacher or group says or does things you do not believe in - then you should switch and find another group.
I have taught meditation now for over twenty years, and I feel that I must repeat that meditation is not something to fool with. Nor is it something to try on your own. It is a very powerful practice, and it can be dangerous to you and to others if you are not taught correctly.
Q I remember you telling me when I first started meditating that meditation can speed up your karma. Would that be part of the danger?
L Well, one thing that could happen is that you could open a mental door incorrectly and you don't know what is going to come through that door. It could be a deluge. And you don't know the quality or the source of what is going to come through that door. So a good meditation teacher is essential.
Q Like a doctor.
Q They ask you for your symptoms.
L Yes. I often ask my students to keep a journal, especially in the beginning. What are they experiencing in their meditations and also in their lives? What changes has meditation brought about in their life? Has it improved it? Has it made it more confusing? If it is not the right meditation for you, then you can use a different method. There are many methods of meditation. I keep a very careful eye on students, especially in the beginning.
Q I remember some cautionary advice you gave me when I first began meditating. The ordinary kind of places that people might find peaceful, where they might go to meditate, might not be such a good idea. I used to go to cemeteries because they were so quiet, usually with a beautiful view. Always a nice place to sit, not a lot of people roaming around like at a park. So I used to like to go to cemeteries and meditate. And when I first told you I did that, you asked me to stop.
L While we are on this topic of caution, I might mention that it is also not a good idea to stare at a candle flame. It seems like a natural thing, even a holy thing that humans will do. I did it when I was in high school, before I learned to meditate, and I think it unbalanced me. The sage Paul Brunton says we should never stare at anything for more than two or three seconds. Nor should we hold our breath for long periods while in meditation, that can be especially dangerous. It is said that if you hold your breath while meditating, even your teacher cannot help you. No drinking or drugs if you meditate. If you are going to drink, do not meditate that day. Depending on the drug - if it is a psychedelic drug such as mushrooms or LSD - you might have to wait up to three years before meditating again. Ask your teacher about that. Keep your life ethical. Work on improving, perfecting your psychology, behavior and ethical life.
This all applies, even if you are not serious about the spiritual quest, if you are meditating to gain peace or clarity of mind. If you really don’t want to give up drinking or drugs, if your psychology or ethical life is in shambles - it would be better then to do hatha yoga, breathing exercises or similar practices. Traditional, vocal prayer, chant, and the rosary are also very safe sorts of meditation. Again, the meditations that we are speaking of in this interview are very powerful, and until fairly recently were kept in the convents and monasteries - in protected environments with strict ethical rules and under the careful supervision of the religious superiors. Those who are psychologically or ethically unbalanced can become worse by meditating incorrectly. On the other hand, with the proper meditation and supervision, meditation could be the cure. In any case, it is nothing to fool with.
Q When I first met you and started meditating, I told you that I had been meditating on my own, in my own fashion, without knowing what I was doing. And one of the things that I found out, was that if I sat and stared at myself at night in a dim light in the mirror for a long time, I would entirely disappear. And you said "but if you stare at anything long enough, it disappears and you must stop that right away."
L That is one of the worst things you could do, to stare in a mirror.
Q So what are some of the benefits of meditation?
L Well, that is another huge topic. It would take a very long time to discuss that, books full of words. Even one meditation can completely change your life. But I would probably start by saying that even on the physical, psychological level of existence, the benefits are almost immediate.
For one, it improves your mind. In time, your memory, your mind will become razor sharp and clear. If you are an artist, the artistic life will deepen, and the inspiration will easily flow. In my experience, even if you never meditate again, just that one meditation can entirely change your life. In addition, besides the artistic ...
L Concentration definitely, and the ability to absorb mental information. Also the ability to feel and think at the same time. You start to get control over your thoughts, and therefore, over your emotions. A peace comes into your life that is really indescribable and almost immediate, at least in my case.
I will give you an example. When I had my first meditation, I was living in an artist commune, ten crazy artists all sharing one house.
Q And how old were you?
L I was in my late twenties. A violinist lived upstairs. He was practicing for a concert, and for one entire winter he practiced one piece by Bela Bartok. I should say that he practiced three measures of a Bela Bartok piece, measures that apparently were very hard for him to play. He practiced those same measures hours a day, day after day - always with the same mistake, because he practiced the mistake five hours a day. So he became very good at the perfect mistake.
I went to his concert. I had never heard the rest of the piece, so I enjoyed the concert. But when he got to those three measures, he made the same, usual mistake.
In any case, he played those same measures the entire winter, and I was there for most of it. With Christopher and his violin, like a giant mosquito upstairs. It got to the point where I wanted to step on his violin. I had my first meditation, and I came back to the house, to my little downstairs room. And sure enough, Chistopher took out his cherished violin and started practicing. My body braced itself for those measures - and they came, as they always did. But this time I had no reaction. I remember being very surprised. My nervous system remained calm and intact - it was not wrung out like a dishrag. It was as though he wasn’t even playing. And I happily realized that after one meditation I could listen to those three measures without feeling like I had my hand in an electric socket.
A I also noticed that huge amounts of energy came in. More than that, my resistence to what I considered unpleasant or boring tasks began to dissolve. For instance, for the first time in my life, I started enjoying washing the dishes, cleaning up, organizing my things. Doing those little chores that I used to try to avoid. And that was all in the first week or so that I started meditating.
A In terms of the mystical and the spiritual benefits, I would probably suggest reading Saint Teresa of Avila’s book "The Interior Castle" and her "Autobiography". In those volumes, she carefully describes the mystical stages that you go through. It would be far too long a discussion for this interview. If you consider that meditation is really a very deep prayer, it is easy to see that meditation can bring you to mystical union, to a conscious communion with God, more quickly than vocal prayer, or reading, or the other practices we might do on the spiritual path. St. Teresa of Avila tells us that it is the only way to mystical union. When Christ says: "Heaven is within you" - he is speaking of meditation.
If your goal is not necessarily the spiritual quest, to attain a spiritual height, even just in terms of physical rest, it is extraordinary. Meditation is both physical and mental rest.
Q Something I've often heard is that study of the ancient wisdom is highly integral to deriving benefit from meditation. The phrase I've heard in Zen studies is you can't climb the mountain if you don't have any legs.
L There are many spiritual paths. For myself, however, an understanding of the nature of the ego was essential. The workings of the ego are insidious and can trip you up in so many different ways. My teacher, Anthony Damiani, used to call the ego an octopus. Everywhere you look, there it is. The study of books and philosophy can help in our understanding of the ego and its various traps. I would suggest reading The Ego volume of the Notebooks by Paul Brunton, published by Larson Publications. And The Emotions volume.
Q So there's another benefit, it helps get the ego out of the way.
L Yes, it begins to gently dissolve the ego so that we can experience the soul. Paradoxically, it also gives you a stronger, healthier ego, and more confidence. You have to understand the ego, and that is not so easy to do. By studying all these different philosophies, it can help give you insight, let's say. It can inspire you.
In our meditation classes, we read the lives of many different saints, of many different religions. In this way, we see how they act in certain situations and then we can try to emulate their lives.
Even the saints lived in the world. How did they act or react in a situation that either you or I might find ourselves in? What spiritual practices did they use? So it can serve that purpose. Or if you read the various sacred texts, depending on your religion, for instruction - you can be exposed to their revelations, their inspirations and their truths.
I was raised Catholic, so I read and study the New Testament. In the New Testament, Christ is giving us very practical advice. It is not just a litany of philosophical and ethical information, or a book of fairy tales. For many years, I set aside time to read the New Testament every night. It became a sacred time for me. I would read a short passage and then ponder the meaning. And if you consistently do this, day after say - after a while, you are standing with Him. It is as though He takes you where He is standing, by the hand. You begin to see the world the way He did.
And He was not standing in the world in the usual, human way. He never forgot where He came from or who He IS. I often felt as though I were put in a Higher Consciousness. I could feel the heat of that day, I could smell the dust of the land, the sun hurt my eyes. I felt as though I were standing with Him, seeing through His eyes and thinking with His Mind. It was a training of sorts. He became my Teacher. We were all meant to be saints.
Q Well, I think it’s a rare person who's going to aspire to emulate the saints. I do not have any tremendous attraction to religions, but I would say: read The Lives of The Saints. Friends and contemporaries of the saints, in their first-hand accounts, witnessed some amazing things in the lives of the saints. So these stories are not mythical. They are not some pretty little Sunday school stories that somebody made up to entertain people on Sunday mornings. These are quite remarkable events in the lives of real human beings that many people watched and observed. For instance, St. Therese of Avila, who levitated. Many people saw it.
L In fact, she was so embarrassed by the fact that she levitated, she sometimes asked the other nuns to hold her down if other people were in the church. They tried to hold her down, but they were unsuccessful. That Force was so strong, whatever Divine Force was levitating her, that they could not keep her feet on the ground. In fact, on occasion, they rose with her. That is how powerful the Divine is.
L Often we humans think and talk about the Divine as though it is a leaf blowing in the wind, only ideas, old pictures in an older book. Well, here is an instance where there was enough Power to raise Saint Teresa of Avila and a small clump of other nuns off the ground.
I find the stories of the saints inspiring and vibrant. Saint Martin de Porres, for example. The other monks would sometimes see him floating twelve feet in the air while he was praying.
Q I love him. And he bilocated too.
L He was often seen in two places at once. He also walked through walls. Once he took two young monks through the locked front door of the monastery with him. The monks themselves testified to this, after St. Martin’s death. People said that sometimes Saint Padre Pio used to float over his congregation and out the front door, in order to get a little fresh air. Countless people saw him do this.
Q So anyone, if anyone has any higher aspirations to walk through walls or levitate, read and study The Lives of The Saints - and meditate.
L Well, these gifts, these siddhas are not the end all. We would have to say that the true goal is not to become invisible or to bilocate or to have visions. But I think these gifts are given to certain saints to show people that the physical laws of the universe are not the ultimate laws. The world’s physical laws are temporary, temporal. They are only the laws of this material universe. But there exists another set of higher laws, laws that we do not understand.
Q Well, I'm not even Catholic, and I must say I have never found any reading so gripping as The Lives of The Saints.
L There are saints in all religions.
Q Yes, I love Yogananda’s The Autobiography of a Yogi.
L Yes, the Indians have yogis who walked on water, who swallowed poison, who levitated and bilocated, who never ate ...
A Our Lady, who has been appearing in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, told the visionaries there that there is only one God. Men have made the different religions, have separated God into all these different religions. But there is only one God. Our Lady says, if we are to be true Christians, we must respect all religions of the earth. If you read the lives of the high mystics of all the religions - for the most part, they have very similar experiences and powers and clairvoyance. And it would have to be that way. If God is Truth and the Creator - He would have to be greater than all the individual religions and saints and also be the essence of all of them.
Q You can be a member of any religion and practice meditation. What about meditation minus the religion? Can an agnostic meditate and derive benefit from it?
L Well, certainly.
Q Of course?
L Even an atheist.
Q Even an atheist can meditate and derive benefit from it?
L Definitely. Their meditations will eventually bring them to the soul. Perhaps they will call it Beauty or Consciousness, or some other descriptive word. I imagine that there are many very kind and spiritual souls who call themselves atheists, but are just using a different vocabulary to describe God. In any case, if we managed to get all the agnostics and all the atheists of the world to meditate - I suspect there would be very few true atheists left after a few years.
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