In June 2003, I made a pilgrimage by bike around Shikoku, the fourth largest island of the Japanese archipelago.
In the eighth century, a monk named Kobo Daishi designed a pilgrimage around its coasts, turning the whole island into a mandala of enormous dimensions, on which the pilgrim has to link eighty-eight temples with about 900 miles of invisible thread. The name associated with the four prefectures of the island (Shikoku means “four countries”) indicates the type of spiritual transformation the pilgrim undergoes: preparation, training, realization and nirvana.
It was a pilgrimage, a “spiritual journey” designed by someone able to correlate the topography of this island with that of the human mind, and doing so through a catalytic mechanism of spiritual transformation.
Many were the anecdotes I lived during this pilgrimage, the next being just one of them.
On a rainy day along the most solitary section of the island, I moved the handlebar of the bike forward to get a more aerodynamic posture. The increase of speed was immediate; I could feel my pulse accelerating gradually, and my mouth opening to take more air in perfect coordination with the effort. My view got focused on the road a few yards ahead and my thoughts stopped. At that moment, instead of feeling tired, and despite being performing at high pulsations, my mind was in absolute calm.
My concentration was so intense that when I raised my sight it was dark and had no idea where I was. I pulled over to ask at a house of a coastal town. The man who opened the door told me, laughing, that I had passed the temple I was heading to. Then, the tiredness suddenly came over me. The combination of having stopped pedaling and the soaking caused me chills. As I walked away, the man shouted, “Wait! My sister has a ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) just at the base of the road leading to the mountain where the temple is. If you want, I can take you there by car.” I could not believe my luck. We left the bike in his front yard and went to the ryokan, which turned out to be nice and cheap. After many miles under heavy rain, I welcomed the unexpected ofuro (communal hot tub) and the soft tatami of the room. The next morning, after the restful sleep and meditation, I went to visit the temple, and then walked back to the house where I had left the bike last night. In its front basket there was a Tupperware full of food and a note saying, “Vegetarian Rice. Cheers, pilgrim.”
We all know the feeling of being so absorbed in what we are doing that we forget everything else. Those by nature leaning toward intellectual activities can experience these states of enhanced concentration while studying or solving a problem of calculus; those more inclined to physical action can have those experiences during prolonged physical effort (as in the case I just mentioned). These states may also occur while cooking, repairing something, painting, playing an instrument, praying, etc.
Can we define this heightened state of mental concentration as meditation? The answer is: No.
The concentrated mind during an activity does not equate to the concentrated mind during “non-activity.” It is true that the techniques of meditation based on concentration use a topic, such as breathing or a mental image or a mantra to calm down the mind, similar to the case of a mind stilled by being focused on an activity. However, this achievement is only preliminary; it is from that quiet mind onward that we can start talking about meditation. At that preliminary stage, the mind needs something to grasp and, therefore, is a state that depends on something else. However, we always welcome these states because they allow us to have a glimpse of a far more focused and efficient mind, free of the habitual concerns that we all carry along.
When we learn to get that same mind in all situations and without requiring an external element, then we can say we have developed some true samadhi or mental power.
Meditation in stillness helps us to develop this capacity because “all” that happens during meditation is our mental activity. The goal is to learn to transcend all activity, including that at rest. Impossible? That seems at first, but with practice we gradually realize that this is the only way back to our true nature, which is pure, calm, luminous and impervious to the incessant noise of our minds and the stimuli around. All of that is reduced to a rumor, as static electricity… like a dream.
Far from becoming ice blocks, we become truly effective humans, working with wisdom instead of intelligence, full of empathy for our surroundings, because now we are more aware of our suffering, and that of the others which is no other than ours.