Something That Works

Tile from Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, PA

Tile from Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, PA

I have a bipolar religious personality. I swing between strident phases of particularism and universalism. But only in Buddhist meditation — which I do when I’m feeling universal — do I have anything like an empirical experience of something true. Something that works.

Moments of particularism can feel true — like, “Yes, this is me. This is who I am.” — but that’s nothing like a dispassionate observation of the truth; it’s just a gut feeling of resonance. “Who I am” is obviously not only the person feeling that feeling in that moment.

Whereas the working truth of meditation rarely even hits me during meditation. It hits an hour later, when I’m making breakfast for two adults and a baby, and something goes wrong, and I handle it, and I realize, “Whoa. I could not have handled that if I hadn’t prepared myself.”

That moment consists of both a particular observation — “I’m calm. My heart rate is low. I understand what my next action should be.” — and a universal one — “All of reality is in this situation with me.”

Universalist religious experience is a kind of radical belonging. Particularist religious practices give me another kind of belonging — “This is familiar. It reminds me of my parents/grandparents/childhood. I can do this without worrying about it.” But that’s a fragile feeling.

I think the particular is important. It keeps me moving through life in a pattern that’s intelligible to others. But maybe the key to stopping my violent swinging is to understand that the particular is a social layer, and the universal is a nearly unspeakable, mystical one.