‘Inner spaciousness is always there, with its clarity, its love, and its innate goodness,’ says Sally Kempton in her new book. Our task is learn how to connect with it, and in Meditation for the Love of It, which has garnered rave reviews from such spiritual luminaries as Lama Surya Das, Kempton sets out to show us how love and enjoyment should be at the heart of our experience.
A shame then that although the book contains much of value, it’s hard to love it, and at times, hard even to enjoy it.
Parts are written with sensitivity, imagination and a sense of who the reader might be. Kempton offers an excellent explanation of how to work with a mantra. She successfully combines practical advice with metaphors that foster intuitive understanding (‘after a while the mantra begins to act as a sort of magnet that aligns the particles of your scattered attention’).
The meditation exercises – which come towards the end of each chapter, in ones, twos, threes or more – are varied and imaginative. ‘Become Aware of your Awareness’ was one I found particularly good, to the extent that I now incorporate it in my practice.
But there were two aspects of the book that I found very difficult.
Firstly, Kempton talks a lot about bliss states and refers again and again to where our meditation practice will eventually lead us.
In those chapters where the meditation journey itself is the subject, such as ‘Where Do You Find Yourself?’ and ‘The Process of Ripening’ – chapters offering a kind of road map to help the reader assess his or her progress on the meditation journey – this is all well and good, and actually very interesting.
But the emphasis on transcendental states in the rest of the text is draining and counter-productive. It’s as if ordinary experience is being continually presented as something to move away from.
Maybe this is the case. But there’s a problem inherent in talking about it too much. As the poet Antonio Porchia said, ‘he who makes a paradise of his bread, makes a hell of his hunger.’
It’s something of a paradox, but the meditation teachings I find most helpful are those that barely mention any future state but help one to focus unconditionally on the here and now with all its pains and pleasures.
This may be just me, and Sally Kempton may be writing for more experienced meditators. But here was the second problem: I couldn’t see who the book was aimed at.
Kempton’s teachings are based on Kashmir Shaivism, a ‘philosophical system’ that she describes in the chapter ‘Moving Inward’ (pg 109 onwards). Nothing wrong with that, except that the book, with its frequent quotations from spiritual leaders of all traditions, seems to be marketed at the general reader.
And yet, among passages written in a down-to-earth colloquial style, the text breaks out into esoteric language and liberal use of the symbols of Kempton’s yogic tradition. This shuffling between registers is disorientating and made me wonder who was talking. I would feel on board with the ideas and concepts, only to feel crestfallen when I was suddenly excluded by alien words and concepts. Hope was offered, but it was also snatched away.
I was thrown by assertions like ‘the radiance of supreme Awareness is present inside the [mantra] syllables’ (pg 92), and ‘Oneness is the Truth’ (pg 110). The capitalizing of words made me uncomfortable, and sometimes I was invited somewhere I just plain didn’t want to go, as in the meditation exercise, ‘Seeing the Mind as Shakti, the Energy of Creation’ (pg 151).
Having said that, the book has something to offer both secular readers and readers from different spiritual traditions, if you approach with caution. For yoga practitioners out there, it is probably a godsend. For Kempton’s followers and fellow Shaivists, it may even be a Godsend.