Out of Darkness: From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation

Cecil Messer
Asheville, N.C.: TwoCrows , 2016; vi + 194 pp., paper, $9. 

Out of Darkness is a warm, engaging approach to the practice of meditation. The author draws from a lifetime of meditative exploration, presenting the reader with a rich panorama of contemplative practices from Eastern and Western traditions. As you read the pages of the book, you get the feeling that the author is speaking directly to you as a fellow traveler on a sacred journey, and without any trace of pedantry or dogma. Since meditation involves art as much as science, the author’s personal touch adds to the overall effectiveness of his presentation.

Cecil Messer, a longtime member of the TS, explains the book’s title as referring to “a movement away from our present status as alienated beings residing in a confused world of our own making.” In the modern world, millions of people live lives that are devoid of real happiness, which leads them to pursue one temporary pleasure after another. Who can argue with the author’s observation that “few people sustain real happiness or experience enduring contentment throughout their lifetime”? For those who chase one micropleasure after another, life is a “perpetual carousel” that leaves them feeling unsettled, confused, and dissatisfied. Hence the book’s subtitle, From Chaos to Clarity via Meditation.

Out of Darkness consists of four sections: an introduction, the Western approach, the Eastern approach, and the integration of both. Each of the fifteen chapters ends with a short meditative practice called a “sitting session.” These fifteen exercises are varied and simple, and progress in nuanced stages. Before attempting any of them, however, the reader is advised to review the “sitting fundamentals,” consisting of ten basic points regarding body position, posture, and so forth. Experienced meditators will be familiar with these preliminaries, but their inclusion is helpful for the novice.

The section on the Western approach includes passing references to Rumi, Thomas Merton, The Secret Doctrine, HPB’s diagram of meditation, The Voice of the Silence, and the Old and New Testaments. In taking such an eclectic approach, it is not the author’s intent to linger or dwell on any one particular point, but to highlight “those religious practices that emphasize and follow the wisdom of the teachings of their religion and lead to a profound renewal of mind and heart.” When this renewal is experienced, the phrase “born again” truly applies, regardless of whether one identifies with the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or any other religious tradition.

Turning to the East, Messer puts the spotlight on the wisdom found in Buddhism, with its emphasis on the Paramitas, and the Yoga Sutras, with Patanjali’s “eight-limbed” system of yoga. He does a skillful job of distilling key points from different philosophical systems, weaving them into one flowing argument that advocates the daily practice of meditation. Since the author describes himself as a practitioner of nonsectarian Buddhism, it is not surprising that he emphasizes Buddhist doctrines. And while technical explanations of terms and systems appear throughout the book, these are interspersed with short stories and anecdotes, all of which serve to keep the reader interested and moving to the next page.

In the opinion of this reviewer, Out of Darkness is an outstanding manual on meditation, but one that will be most beneficial for those just beginning their meditative journey. Throughout the book, the inquisitive reader will find many ideas for further study and inquiry. To maximize the utility of this book, the practitioner is advised to become intimately familiar with each of the fifteen sessions, doing them one at a time, patiently, and without rushing on to the next one. In the words of the author, they are “designed to encourage the practitioner to effortlessly relax into a profoundly subtle and interiorly oriented state.” This is a fine book, and one that I can recommend. My only criticism would be a relatively minor point, namely that the book would benefit from having an index. Perhaps this could be added if a second edition were to be published someday.

David Bruce


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