One night I was having trouble sleeping so I decided to do a guided meditation. It seemed simple enough: you meet a guide who gives you a gift and then shows you something you need to face. I thought it might distract me from the insomnia and shut my whirring mind off for a few minutes. Perhaps whatever it was that was keeping me awake was the thing I needed to face. If so, it was high time I stopped running and got the confrontation over with.
But it didn’t go the way I was expecting.
Guided Meditation: step by step
This meditation takes about 7-8 minutes and it comes from the Red Book Dialogues with Jack Kornfield. I’ll give you the basic description below which you can commit to memory, or you can listen to Jack Kornfield guide you through the process here (the meditation starts around 1 hour 13 mins in, but the whole talk is worth watching).
1. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths and enter the present moment. Allow your mind to settle into peace.
2. Imagine you’re walking through a forest and you come across a cave entrance. Inside this cave you’ll find three chambers that you can explore, but first you stand outside the entrance and notice a torch or some kind of light you can use to navigate in the darkness of the cave.
3. Pick up the torch (or whatever) and enter the cave. Notice the atmosphere: what’s it like inside the cave?
4. Now enter the first chamber. Here you meet a guide, human, animal, or spirit, who will guide you on this inner journey. As you enter the room notice how the guide looks, feel their presence and energy. Greet your guide, ask for their name if you want to, or have a chat if that feels right.
5. Now your guide takes you into the second chamber where you find a treasure. This treasure is a symbol of something you need at this point in your life, something that will help you on your journey. Perhaps it’s in a treasure chest or your guide simply hands it to you. Imagine this gift as clearly as you can. Accept it and trust the symbol you’re given. Your guide may also give you some advice connected with the treasure, or tell you what you need to do with it. Thank your guide for the gift.
6. Now your guide takes you into the third chamber where you find a symbol of what is unseen and unacknowledged in you. This is something that calls to you from the depths, what you must face and understand to fulfil your destiny or life purpose. Imagine this symbol of what’s unconscious in you as clearly as you can – this is a neglected part of yourself that is calling to you. Ask your guide questions if you need to and listen to their response.
7. Thank your guide and know that they’re always there to guide you as you continue on your journey. There’s much more in the cave you could explore, so you can come back any time. Follow your guide back into the forest with your treasure.
8. When you’re ready, bring yourself back into your body and open your eyes.
9. Whatever symbols you saw in this meditation, spend some time reflecting on them to discover their meaning. You might like to buy something that relates to the symbols you were given, research what they mean, or draw them.
That’s the method. Easy, right? What could possibly go wrong? Well, here’s what happened when I tried this meditation…
How not to do a guided meditation
I walked through the forest and entered the cave. I didn’t bother with a torch, I could see perfectly well because the cave seemed to have its own light source somewhere. I could see the three chambers: two on the right and the third straight ahead. Off to the left there was an area of darkness and I could hear the low roar of an underground river. I wandered over to the left to explore the noise and discovered a sheer drop into an abyss.
I quickly stepped back and retreated to the other side of the cavern and got on with the next part of the meditation. When I entered the first chamber there was nobody about, but then a raven flew out of the shadows and landed at my feet.
I decided not to engage the raven in conversation – it’s a raven, what’s it going to say? Instead, I followed as she flew out of the chamber. (I assumed it was a female raven, but I have no idea.)
The raven flew ahead of me into the second chamber. I stepped into the space to find her sitting on top of a gold jousting helmet in the middle of the floor. It was a simple medieval style helmet with a large visor, but no silly plume of feathers. The gold shone in the faint light.
I stared in disbelief: what the hell am I supposed to do with fricking jousting helmet?!
There was a brief tussle with my subconscious where I tried to remonstrate and persuade it to come up with something else – something better, something that made sense. But nothing happened. The raven sat there, its claws squeaking against the metal of the helmet.
I decided to scrap the meditation and start again. So off I went, back into the forest. This time, the raven flew past me and glided between the trees towards the cave. Together we went straight into the second chamber where I expected – hoped – for a new symbol.
The chamber was empty.
I stood there for a moment, thinking: Come on! Come on!
Again, nothing happened.
Now the raven started to take the piss. She landed on my head and began to peck at my scalp.
Okay, okay, I thought. I get it. I need the helmet!
I turned and walked out of the second chamber. By now I was ready to give up on the whole enterprise, but since I was there, decided I may as well go into the third chamber and get it over with: Let’s just face whatever monster is lurking in the depths and perhaps then I can get some sleep.
I walked into the third chamber and it dissolved into light. I couldn’t see the walls or the floor, there was just light.
And then I was gone – dissolved into bliss.
After a short while (can’t tell how long – that’s the trouble with satori) my mind kicked back in and I thought: well, that didn’t work!
Decoding the Symbols
I went into the meditation expecting to face the darkest part of my shadow, but the grace of surrender took me by surprise. My true Self was waiting for me in the darkness. This is what I must face. I must stop resisting my true nature. But how? Perhaps the jousting helmet will help (!) – if I can understand its meaning.
Let’s unpack the symbolism:
A helmet is worn as protection in battle and when facing down obstacles or attack. Jousting helmets were worn by knights in fighting tournaments, a popular sport in medieval times that involved trying to knock your opponent off his horse. Other associations include knights going on a quest, perhaps for the Holy Grail, or the Knight Errant, like Don Quixote attacking imaginary enemies. Gold helmets were worn by kings, so it could also symbolise royalty or sovereignty. In Greek mythology, Athena had a gold helmet that symbolised wisdom and strategy in war. Gold is a symbol of immortality and divinity because it’s incorruptible and never tarnishes. It’s the philosopher’s stone, the gold of the alchemical quest for the wholeness of the true Self – which is also what the Holy Grail stands for.
So a gold jousting helmet could be worn by a spiritual warrior on a sacred quest for the Self.
This leads into another layer of meaning connected with the idea of wearing spiritual armour. I won’t get into Samurai warriors here, but there are lots of fierce-looking Buddhist deities brandishing swords. For example, Skanda (or Wei Tuo), a bodhisattva who protects the dharma and is often shown with a golden helmet.
There’s also a lot of talk in Buddhism about armouring yourself with the vows and the armour of perseverance. This is about having the determination to stay on the path and keep practising, a metaphor for spiritual endurance and the ability to resist distractions. In The Shobogenzo, Dogen talks about the “inexhaustible armour” that comes from taking refuge in the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha:
“Taking refuge in the Three Treasures means wholeheartedly acting from pure trust… In our aspiring to the far-off wisdom that is the fruition of Buddhahood, we begin by bringing into existence just such a protective garb. Thus, even though our body and our mind right now, instant by instant, are arising and vanishing, our aspiration for Buddhahood will surely long continue to thrive until we fully realise our enlightenment.” (Shobogenzo, Shasta Abbey translation)
In the notes it explains, “Taking the Three Refuges acts like a suit of armour to protect us from whatever attacks us spiritually.” (Thanks to James at It All Just Is for this blog post that helped me make the connection.)
One final meaning: there’s the armour of loving-kindness which is about not fighting the present moment. It’s an antidote to fear that helps you to accept whatever is happening with equanimity.
So why did the raven give me a gold jousting helmet?
I resist my true nature because it’s in the nature of the ego to resist. But underneath that is fear of the void or non-being, and the belief that I’m not safe. How can I let go and surrender when the world is such a crazy, unpredictable mess?
Perhaps the raven is saying: you are protected, you are safe.
The helmet embodies the protection needed on my quest, but also the essence of the goal too – the gold of my true Self. In one symbol I have the means and the end. It’s a jousting helmet because a joust isn’t a real fight: it’s a spectacle, a distraction. The enemy isn’t real either. Like Don Quixote, I’m forever tilting at the windmills of my mind, fighting an enemy that isn’t there.
Perhaps the raven is saying: time to suit up, you’ve got the fight of your life on your hands.
And yet the fight isn’t a real fight. I’m always where I need to be. All I need to do is stop distracting myself, stop resisting, and my true Self is there. It’s time to step into the light and embrace pure being. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real.
Perhaps I can’t sleep because I need to wake up.