by Halvor Eifring

Driving a foreign visitor around Oslo, he gets lost, and all of a sudden they are back where they started. “It seems we have been here before,” he says, slightly embarrassed. “Well, isn’t that also the way it often is in life?”, his guest says with a smile. “We think we’re moving forwards, but we keep discovering that we’re back where we came from. The wheel of life!”

But at a recent meditation retreat at Lundsholm it dawned on him that the notion of a wheel is only one side of the story. The other side is more like a corkscrew: it goes round and round, but each rotation takes it deeper. It may feel as if we are back where we began, but in the meantime we ourselves have changed, and what initially feels like the same old place is actually a door into something new and untried.

In meditation it is the sound and the free mental attitude that play the role of the corkscrew. They penetrate into a cork which is gradually wriggled out, releasing what has been bottled up inside. Some parts of the cork are more resistant than others, as when things get congested through too much effort and concentration. Each time the corkscrew encounters this resistance it seems that a problem we thought we had solved has resurfaced. The truth is that the problem had indeed been overcome, but only at the previous level. When we and the meditative corkscrew move deeper into the cork, we must find a new way to deal with the resistance.

Perhaps it is like this in life as well. When we feel that we are going round in circles it may be that the experience we have acquired on our journey enables us to negotiate obstacles more effectively. Meditation may transform the wheel of life into the meditative corkscrew’s path towards liberation.

Déjà vu

So he is at a meditation retreat at Lundsholm. He has meditated for many hours for several days in succession, and now he is struggling with the repetition of the meditation sound. What is basically a very simple act has become complicated. In the midst of this his stream of thought wanders thirty years backwards to his first meditation guidance session. He was in his late teens, lived with his parents, and his father had tried unsuccessfully to convince him to switch to trousers without holes in them when he left home on his bicycle. His guide was a young woman, who flipped with interest through some LPs he had brought with him in a plastic bag. But she too seemed to find it difficult to grasp what he was actually doing in meditation. “You can’t hear the meditation sound?” After a while she tried an educated guess: “I wonder whether perhaps you’re concentrating too much?” And for some reason the question made something fall into place for the young meditator. He was the one who had got himself stuck, by putting too much energy into the repetition of the sound! He left the guidance session with a feeling of lightness: problem solved.

But thirty years later he nevertheless sits in a retreat at Lundsholm and struggles with a meditation sound that will not behave the way he wants it to. Have all these years of meditation been a waste of time? Has the wheel of life brought him full circle?

It may feel that way. But much has happened in the meantime. Meditation has changed his life and reduced his tendency to get stuck in difficult situations with no apparent solutions. It has become easier and easier to overcome the inner compulsion that holds him in these mental knots. But nothing is solved forever. Meditation keeps bringing him into contact with new layers of consciousness, and the knots that were unravelled on one level have to be unravelled anew as he moves on.

The small difference

Sometimes, of course, his foreign guest is right: we end up on the wheel of life and go round in circles without learning from our mistakes. At other times, however, what appears to be repetition is really an important part of the corkscrew’s path. The most obdurate parts of the cork can be the ones it is most vital to get through in order to make progress. And it can take a pretty long time for these hard spots in the cork to yield.

In our meditator’s experience, it is often the free mental attitude that makes the small but crucial difference. “I wonder whether perhaps you’re concentrating too much?” were the guide’s timely words thirty years ago. He can ask himself the same question at the retreat at Lundsholm when he is approaching fifty, but it is not enough merely to say it: an understanding must develop from within. After several days of long meditations he begins to perceive exactly where the problem lies: he is demanding a clarity in the sound that he can only achieve by pressing a bit. As he gradually realises this, he begins to let go. The meditations become easier, and in the discussions afterwards he is able to make connections to a number of other areas in which his demand for a high degree of clarity – and the fear of what may happen if he relaxes his supervision – makes life more of an effort than it needs to be.

The meditative corkscrew is once again beginning to make inroads into resistant material. An area of life which has hitherto been bound up by effort and concentration starts to open up and become freer. This is not the first time a seeming revolution of the wheel has proved instead to be the incremental progress of the corkscrew, and it definitely won’t be the last!