Successful Meditation: The Art of Subtraction
Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German mystic once said, "Spiritual life is more about subtraction than addition."
When I first heard this, it struck me as profound, but I didn’t realize then how this wisdom would revolutionize my meditation over the long haul.
When I was first shown how to do mindful breathing, I loved the theology behind it – God as the ultimate breath of the world, the “Pneuma” coursing through the veins of all creation.
Just inhale and exhale while observing your wandering thoughts and refocusing them on the gap in between the breaths.
Strange as it may seem, as soon as I started paying attention to my breath, I felt anxious. I didn’t really know why. The more I tried to push through, the more it intensified. It felt like I was inwardly resisting something. I tried it repeatedly but all in vain.
What is Mindful Breathing?
The idea behind mindful breathing is simple yet profound. Breathing is something we don’t control. It’s automatic. When you intentionally refocus your attention from meandering thoughts to breathing, thinking eventually subsides.
After struggling with it for some time, I switched to other forms of meditation – guided meditations, music, sounds of nature, mantra-practice observing wildlife, playing the guitar, and being in silence.
And then a strange thing happened. I noticed that when I practice these other types of contemplation, it doesn’t really matter to me whether I succeed or not. I just don’t care.
Whether my monkey mind is skipping from one thought to another or is serenely in touch with those precious gaps in the stream of thinking, I just keep observing what is going on inside.
This practice of observation doesn’t require any effort on my part. On the contrary, it requires that I give up all my efforts.
Thomas Keating expressed it through the following paradoxical dictum: "There’s only one prerequisite to contemplative prayer – get yourself out of the way."
It was at this point that the wisdom of Meister Eckhart hit me like a ten-ton truck. “Spiritual life is more about subtraction than addition.” The whole point is to get your “Self” out of the way.
When I strive, I fail. When I cease to strive, I lose myself in the moment (this is a good thing!). There are no results to achieve. Meditation is not a means to an end. The process is the prize.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, called this inner poverty “the point of nothingness.”
"This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us..."
Is Failing Part of Success?
When I “try” to get meditation right, I get it wrong. When I cease to try, the magic happens. The knowledge that King David spoke of comes over you like a tidal wave.
"Be still and know that I am God."
Finally, it dawned on me that my anxiety over the breathing meditation was the result of “trying” too hard.
Failing at meditation marked the renewal of my spiritual journey. It was a sweet surrender.
After all, failing is the starting point of everything. Just like the world was created out of nothing, nothing is the beginning of everything.
"All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need."
- Richard Rohr
All I Need to do is to Keep Subtracting
Every time I become aware of “trying in any way” during meditation, I let it go.
Every time I catch something I can “subtract,” I do so relentlessly. When I feel a desire to “hear God,” “have an experience,” “become something or someone,” “change my state of mind or mood,” I let it go until there's nothing left. I subtract what I can, getting out of my own way and allowing peace to emerge.
“True seeing” comes through stillness, which can only be achieve through inner surrender.
Meditation shouldn't be a performance, and it needn't be perfect.
It is only through subtraction that we fully collide with the present moment, which is where true ecstasy and meaning is to be found