An Encounter with Annie Dillard’s Meditation

Annie Dillard Obama

Dillard receiving 2014 National Humanities Medal | Leigh Vogel / WireImage

Meditation is a slippery, shapeshifting beast. I used to think it meant sitting cross-legged, eyes closed. But it’s larger than that. If you try and pin meditation down as any one thing, there will emerge innumerable traditions and pundits telling you otherwise. While a drag, they’re usually right; meditation deals in paradox, it mocks logic. Meditation is like a new set of glasses, or rather, it’s like removing your eyeballs altogether and relearning how to navigate a dark world. You don’t end up blind, you find new vision. You look, both for and from, the same metaphysical stillness that exists everywhere, always.

It’s instructive, no matter how familiar we believe ourselves to be with the topic, to periodically wrangle with defining meditation. Comparing our concepts with the raw experience they overlie can point out misalignments, like a blanket not quite covering one’s toes. But another way of unfolding meditation is to come across a stray definition, some random, unexpected fragment that nevertheless pulsates with the thing we seek to understand as ‘meditation’, when it’s least expected. These unexpected encounters heave upon us the task of expanding our understanding of meditation to include the new terrain in which it’s reared its head.

This is how I feel reading Annie Dillard. She reminds me that meditation is something like a shifted center of consciousness, and since there’s really nothing available for us to experience but consciousness — something Arthur Schopenhauer firmly believed — whether Buddhist or atheist, meditation always lurks beneath every surface. If we think of meditation as what happens to consciousness when an experiential space is cleaved between ‘self’ and the whirring of incessant thoughts, she stands firmly in this clearing: 

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead, you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you must raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.” 

                                                      (Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

It’s refreshing to find these places where one does not convert to a meditative culture, but appropriates the fruit, as if plucking an apple from its tree, to feed their own culture. Dillard’s commitment to her own experience, her own language that nevertheless wound up in well-trafficked meditative terrain, solidifies that the thing meant by “meditation” is not fossilized in any particular conceptual scheme. English is my native language, must I adopt foreign tongues to consider my own essence?

Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, they gobbled Indian philosophy and regurgitated not Sanskrit, but their own guts. Everything they ate, read, wrote, worked to reveal and refract what already burned within them. As with Dillard. She understands that you either forge your own path or go the wrong way. There are no other directions. 

When she comes to the interaction between meditation and ‘self’, she skillfully steers away from the unlikely possibility that we can ever live without one — that transcendence does away with the self — describing it, rather, as an emptying and transfiguration of that self:

The death of the self of which the great writers speak is no violent act…You wait in all naturalness without expectation of hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind.” 

(Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Dillard’s meditations do, indeed, transfigure. Whether describing the mating rituals of the praying mantis or the wasp that eats honeybee tongues, she’s both astonished and astonishing. Her distinctive brand of marveling at the Universe suggests an explanation for why the task of defining meditation remains elusive. 

As she describes the impetus of a writer to writing, the same may be said of a meditator to meditating: 

It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

(Write Till You Drop)

My meditation will not look like yours. Each of our astonishments towards the fact of existence express themselves idiosyncratically. Our inescapable individualities bang and bash dents into the meditative consciousness that lives through us in practice. Meditation is not a thing or a delineated act. It’s alive; and life implies change. It’s a center of gravity, a configuration of consciousness that gives rise to a unique way of existing in the world. There’s no denying commonalities, shared spaces of the mentality, but nor is there any denying the authenticity of meditation in earnest. 

These fragments of earnest meditation are strewn all over. In books, in passersby on the street, in the woods, where we’ll likely find Dillard, in films, in dancing, in sitting; there’re no boundaries to where a meditative consciousness may erupt. We can only hope to stumble upon them. Not to convert, not to follow, but because to study the eruptions in all their diversity may provoke our own. 

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