Sunday, July 09, 2006

On Meditation and Prayer: How to Depart and Bewholed (7.1.08)

Let’s pull another reader’s question out of the cosmic hopper, this one from Twisted Knickers, who asked, “I'm another one of those in the back of the class trying to keep up, and I'd appreciate it if you could recommend some books on learning to meditate. Or, maybe you could offer some meta-advice on how to navigate through the choices.”

“I'd also like to hear your thoughts on the contrast between traditional Christian meditation and the 'Eastern' types of meditation.”

In fact, yesterday I received an email from another reader with a similar question, who asked about a book entitled The Power of Focusing (which I have never heard of). “My question to you is whether you've heard of ‘focusing,’ whether you have any experience with it, and if you would recommend a person in search of the Truth to give it a try?”

In my view, there is nothing magical about meditation per se. I myself practiced it for many years without really getting anywhere, and I am sure this is true of many spiritual seekers, especially those drawn toward Buddhism. Many irreligious or anti-religious Westerners are looking for what they regard as a “rational” alternative to religion, so they turn to things like Zen, which is largely an atheological psycho-spiritual technology. Ultimately I found Zen and similar "bare witnessing" approaches to be rather dry, although there are obviously many wise and lovely aspects to Buddhism--it's just a matter of personal choice, or one's dharma, to quote a buddha-ism. (I also have a lot of problems with what I regard as the immoral non-violence of Buddhism, but that’s another subject.)

According to one of a handful of authorities I turn to in these matters, Frithjof Schuon, “meditation cannot of itself provoke illumination; rather, its object is negative in the sense that it has to remove inner obstacles that stand in the way, not of a new, but of a preexistent and ‘innate’ knowledge of which it has to become aware. Thus meditation may be compared not so much to a light kindled in a dark room, as to an opening made in the wall of that room to allow the light to enter--a light which preexists outside and is in no way produced by the action of piercing the wall.... The role of meditation is thus to open the soul, firstly to the grace which separates it from the world, secondly to that which brings it nearer to God and thirdly to that which, so to speak, reintegrates it into God.”

I find this to be a most adequate description, because it is in accord with my own personal experience and with another one of my nonlocal authorities, Sri Aurobindo. (Yes, I know, Schuon would have a lot of problems with Sri Aurobindo, who was not a strict traditionalist, but that’s between the two of them.) For Aurobindo, the only purpose of meditation is to silence the lower mind or “frontal” personality in order to make an opening in what he calls the “psychic being.” For our purposes, we may think of the psychic being simply as the vertical self that is both “deeper” and “higher” than the ordinary, worldly, conditioned ego.

In short, as I tried to get across on pp. 219-224 of One Cosmos, the dual purpose of meditation is to 1) achieve stillness or mental silence, and 2) to maintain openness, surrender, or self-offering. I specifically define “faith” as a sort of “expectant silence,” as we do our part to make ourselves a receptacle for a power or grace that transcends us. We are literally attempting to make contact with the spiritual world (or person), which always engenders an influx of forces. Again, the important point is not the meditation--which is only a means--but preparing ourselves for the subtle energy of grace.

Depending on various personal factors, the grace appears in different guises. For some it will be more of a higher emotional experience, for others, awareness of the sacred. For some it will simply manifest as an unaccountable change in personality, for others, newfound abilities or a deeper understanding of spiritual matters. It is not at all uncommon to actually feel this energy, often in the heart region or above the head. In fact, tantric yoga attempts to commandeer this energy and “take heaven by storm,” so to speak, which I would not recommend. Occasionally things can get out of hand.

Schuon is again exceptionally clear when he writes that “the contact between man and God [in meditation] becomes contact between the intelligence [he is referring here to the higher mind] and Truth, or relative truths contemplated in view of the Absolute.... Meditation acts on the one hand upon the intelligence, in which it awakens certain consubstantial ‘memories,’ and on the other hand upon the subconscious imagination which ends by incorporating in itself the truths meditated upon, resulting in a fundamental and as it were organic process of persuasion.”

This, I believe, accounts for what Dilys has called the “draining the swamp” aspect of true meditation and prayer--why it not only opens us to the higher, but has the practical effect of “deconditioning” the lower mind as well. This is again why I am not a big fan of “empty” meditation of the Zen variety (and I should reemphasize that I’m only talking about myself here, and what has worked for me. I’m not knocking Buddhism. In fact, I would be happy to hear testimony from any Buddhists out there who can balance out my perspective.)

Another point to consider is that meditation is only an “exercise” or an adjunct to the spiritual life. It cannot be its purpose or end. Just as exercise has the purpose of making the body more healthy in general--not just while one is exercising--meditation is something that should carry over into one’s moment to moment life. In other words, in so far as it is possible, we should make the effort throughout the day to live in that silent and open state, in which we are not so involved with the ceaseless barrage of mechanical chatter and internal propaganda coming from the lower mind. Most of these "thoughts" are probably coming from mind parasites anyway.

This is why I am so drawn to Orthodox Christianity, because it really emphasizes everything we have been discussing above. Another of my authorities, St. Theophan the Recluse, writes of how the lower mind is entangled with the world like an opium addict. It cannot get enough of what it really doesn’t need: ”There is a lot of motion, but no life.” And “the reason there is no life in such a life is that it does not occupy and nourish all the aspects of human life, but only a small portion of it. And this small portion stands in last place, not even touching the center of human life.”

St. Theophan writes that “within each person is a spirit, the highest aspect of human life. It is the force that draws that person from the visible to the invisible, from the temporal to the eternal, from the creation to the Creator.”

Writing of the ego, or frontal personality, St. Theophan notes that we might think that someone is “deep in thought.” But “in reality, he is deep in emptiness.... Observe yourself, and you will see that the greater part of our time is spent on such empty and straying thought. Some days, not a single substantial thought enters the mind.”

Not a single substantial thought. How true. This can actually happen to an entire lifetime--much more often than you might think. But here again, this is why I believe it is so important to have a religious framework for one’s “thinking.” As I have had occasion to mention many times in the past, the very purpose of an authentic, revealed religion is to be able to think about the otherwise unthinkable. Through meditation, concentration and prayer, we may take this thinking deeper and deeper--or higher and higher--into the vertical. Put it his way: religions are vertical languages that go hand in hand with the horizontal language of math and science. Evolution is the evolution of both.

St. Theophan’s specific advice regarding meditation and prayer is to think of it as the state of standing before God with the mind in the heart. Body, soul, and spirit all have their own special ways of knowing, and this is the way to know God, as opposed to “knowing about” God with the mind. Another Orthodox text simply says to “establish peace and recollection within yourself and ask for the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost.” St. Theophan says it is “simple: it is prayer--children talking to their Father, without any subtleties...”

And one more thing: don’t look for immediate “results.” Rather, just do it for its own sake. Just make it a routine part of your life, like exercising or brushing your teeth. In my case, I’ve hardly missed some sort of physical workout a single day in my adult life. One has to adopt the same attitude as it pertains to exercising the Spirit. It’s the least you can do to devote at least 15 or 20 minutes a day to turning your mind to higher things, so that higher things may turn to you.

Meditation / Concentration / Prayer: These three words epitomize the spiritual life, while at the same time indicating its principal modes. Meditation, from our standpoint, is an activity of the intelligence in view of understanding universal truths; concentration, for its part, is an activity of the will in view of assimilating these truths or realities existentially, as it were; and prayer in its turn is an activity of the soul directed towards God. --Fritjhof Schuon


One more thing--as a general text on meditation I can actually recommend Meditation for Dummies. It really covers the waterfront, and isn't for dummies at all. (This is proven by the reviewer who complains that the book contains "too much filosophy.")


Alan said...

One cosmos for the rest of us...

Totally work and family safe link

(ok, I had some time to waste waiting for the world cup to start!)

Sal said...

A very good short introduction to meditation is Thomas Merton's "Spiritual Direction and Meditation". Pithy, but covers a lot in just 56 pgs.

Twisted Knickers said...

Thanks for the posting! I was going to say I understand what you wrote, but it would be more accurate to say (as you insightfully put it in a reply to someone else), I understand what I understand and then think I understand all of it. I need step-by-step, concrete guidance, so I will read the "for dummies" book next.

I was hoping you might address what the pastor of the local franchise of "churchianity" thinks he means when he says something like, "God says to meditate on his Word day and night." (Josh 1:8)

I read your book last week, and I must say, you are one seriously weird dude. That's a very good thing, though. How does one type your various symbols into the Blogger comment form, anyway?

Ever since this posting, I thought you should have used the pen name L. Bob Gagdad in publishing your book. That would have been an excellent joke. The downside is it might have provoked certain people of the litigious persuasion. Of course, litigation is a Lifestyle Choice, and who are we to judge?

Gagdad Bob said...

Re Buddhism--

On serious note, the liberal Lawrence Harrsion, in the book we have been discussing in recent days, gets into the dysfunctional values that have held Buddhist countries back from cutural and economic progress.

jwm said...

(with apologies to Van Morrison)

Oh my blog is infested with moonbats

who don't understand what they just read.

They're completely immune to the cluebat

When you whack them upside of the head.

And their thiiiiinking is magic but the logic is gone

and their reeeasoning tragic,
yet they go-

on and on.

I can't get rid of these moonbats
at all my love.
They won't take off their tinfoil hats at all my love....


Hoarhey said...

>>"Many irreligious or anti-religious Westerners are looking for what they regard as a “rational” alternative to religion, so they turn to things like Zen, which is largely an atheological psycho-spiritual technology."<<

I believe it all boils down to intent. If spiritual seeking is approached in humility "as little children" we will be led where we need to go. If the intent has resentment behind it and is used as an escape, negative manifestations will occur as the result.
Intent is key to the concentration factor and assimilating spiritual components for the good or the not so good.
This, in my opinion, is equally true in politics and all aspects of life as it is in religious practice.

Alan said...

jwm: too funny!

I couldn't make the connection with the original song until I searched for van morrison on iTunes - the first track that came up just happened to be Moondance (sorted by Album)

Lisa said...

Well done, Alan! I like your book cover, maybe it could be a second print edition! ;)

dilys said...

Man o man, Alan is obviously another of us shameless Photoshop cowboys!

Without exegesis, Twisted might like to look at the very early material in the book of Psalms, which is evidently talking about "seed," not "emptiness" meditation, and sounds more like a steady occupation of the mind, portable and extended. Yer corner babtist seems to be saying, what you put in your mind creates a template which affects the quality of your life.

Meditating with a "seed," calls on one of the great strengths of the Big Box religions, they offer often gnomic Scriptures plus rich exposition, like blackberries in a pie with many, many seeds :-) And the Eastern Orthodox liturgy -- Being There, I mean -- is also rich opportunity for a kind of choreographic meditation, consisting of a series of directions: "Consider this" "Attend" "Lay aside all earthly cares" "Bringing into remembrance..." Performative speech which accomplishes what it commends, and when the arc of song rests, something is often perceptibly different for the willing participant. Though perhaps as Bob says we can't necessarily require or expect that.

Alan said...

You give me too much credit...

Hoarhey said...


Great candid shot of Bob on the cover by the way.

Lisa said...

Why do we always have to do the work, anonymous? Why don't you go back and reread all your comments and try to figure out why you come off as so negative and intolerant of others? Might be a good lesson for you...

Dilys, I really love the seed meditating image. Will give it a try and see what grows! I feel the need to focus on the positive, yet still be critically aware and on guard from all the negative in the world these days.

Maybe WIll can record your clever song, JWM!

Gagdad Bob said...


I've decided to start exerting a heavier hand in deleting the troll comments right away, since they bring only darkness to the discussion. If you're a regular and one of your comments vanishes, don't be offended--it's only because it no longer makes any sense in the absence of the troll comment.

joseph said...

Beautiful quotes from Schuon, Bob. I wanted to mention that he was a strong advocate of japa-yoga--or a method using a mantra, which facilitates, in many traditions, meditation practice. All of his disciples, regardless of tradition, were given a mantra to practice.

Gagdad Bob said...


Very good point. I practice japa mala myself, using either a mantra, the Jesus prayer, or chanting the divine names.

Gagdad Bob said...

In fact, I also have a first-generation brainwave synchronizer that I bought at the Sharper Image about 15 years ago and use all the time for meditation. I have no idea if it actually does anything, but if nothing else, it makes an excellent meditation timer.

jwm said...

When I pray I use a silent recitation that has grown with me over the last ten years. I sometimes use the same recitation when I walk the hills, when I get to the point where the physical exertion is causing that shift of consciouness that exertion seems to cause. The point (and the hard part) is always to mean each passage, and not allow it to become a rote repetition.

A practical question on meditating on a phrase or a mantra:
Do you engage the process by repeating a passage softly, or by silently thinking it repeatedly? Or do you select a phrase from scripture and ponder it and all its implications and potential meanings?


pete(y-not) said...

Use of a mantra or "seed" is more like "closing" the mind, usually leading to what I'd call an "indirect opening".

To "cede" conscious control or comment on the natterings tossed-up-into or generated-by the "ego"
eventually causes said natterings to cease once said ego gets the hint that they're not needed or wanted at these times.
Leaving you "open" or in "no-mind"....

HV said...

I think an important part of meditation is seeing directly how the "lower" or "egoic" mind operates. You can observe how thoughts arise spontaneously and how we latch on to them (or not). The Desert Fathers ascribed great importance to cultivating the power to accept or reject the thoughts that arise. This is the inner meaning of Christian "detachment".

Sal said...

one of my most-used meditation practices is the Rosary, which involves several parts of your question. Please forgive me if this information is already familiar to you.

There, the intention is to meditate on a series of subjects - events in the lives of Jesus and Mary- while reciting out loud/praying mentally a prescribed set of prayers (1 Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, 1 Gloria) per subject, or 'mystery', as they're commonly called.

The most common objections to this are "How can you mean the prayers, if you're deliberately thinking about something else at the same time?" and "Isn't this the 'vain repetition' we're warned about in Scripture re: prayer?" The answers are sort of interwoven: it's not 'vain repetition' b/c you're meditating at the same time and the prayers are actually a sort of focusing/timing device for the meditation - you're not thinking about them deeply, but they're having an effect all the same, on some level.

The practice is tricky until you get the hang of it - one's focus tends to move in between the vocal/mental prayer (the prayers) and the meditation. The meditation is the goal, though.

Which is why I personally find the Scriptural Rosary, which has a line of Scripture for each prayer, fruitlessly distracting - it breaks up the flow of thought. (Though it makes converts from Protestantism feel a little less like the flames are licking at their heels. :)

This is all flexible - you can meditate on things other than the traditionally prescribed mysteries. You can continue with a fruitful meditation past the time allotted. It is a useful devotion in that is can be used by anyone - the simple and the very advanced.

After doing this for a while, just picking up the beads puts your mind in the 'zone'.

Just my .02

Bro. Bartleby said...

Bro. Juniper uses the fully mature sunflower, with its spirals of seeds, as meditative pieces, somewhat like walking a labyrinth, only using your eyes instead of your feet to make the spiral journey. I must admit, this meditative spiral spiritual journey is wonderful, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I use a large sunflower, one with a full fringe of yellow pedals still intact, then in the chapel or other room with subdued light, I tie a string around the stem of the sunflower, then hang it so that it is at eye level, usually close to a wall, so as to keep the sunflower from slowly spinning in circles. Once the sunflower is stilled, I seat myself so that my face is about arms length from the spiral of seeds, then after a silent prayer of thanksgiving, I begin my journey, my focus moves from seed to seed, following the spiral from outside, in. Moving around the circumference one seed at a time, then following the spiral in, again and again and again. Sometimes I will pray for those concerns on my heart, a new prayer for each arm of the spiral. Other times I will simply empty my mind and simply continue the journey with my sight, and when words do begin ping-ponging in my head, I'll simply observe them, then release them, and continue on my journey.

Charlz said...

. . . from the seats in the back ~
Late to the discussion I offer my practice. Sitting quietly I think: " Here am I, Lord. You know my thoughts and my needs. Fulfill them as You will."

There I sit until I am moved to move. Usually 15 - 20 minutes. Sometimes more - sometimes less.
Always good - Sometimes better.

Mr Bob said...

Well said post, and I agree.
Eastern meditation goal;

Christian Meditation;
Joshua 1:8
Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Philippians 4:8
[ Meditate on These Things ] Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.