The season of Winter must be the most under-appreciated season of the year, yet its harsh conditions and general starkness contains unexpected beauty and lessons of the profundity of “letting go and letting be” and of the value of emptying, of the natural retreat of color, of silence and inwardness. Like the natural seasonal references and myths of the abduction of Persephone into the underworld in the Classical Eleusinian Mystery cult, Winter, through its natural reversal of the outward focus of growth and manifestation, becomes a natural metaphor for what has come to be known as the “via negative” in Western mysticism, a concept that is even more culturally “disowned” now than Winter is as a season. The “via negative” reminds us uncomfortably of the ultimate limitations of language and of thought itself to describe or even to grasp the big questions of life or of spirituality, yet it is not the totalizing pessimistic stance of nihilism.
Winter is also the season, aside from summer, of intensive meditation practice in Zen monasteries. As the trees lose their foliage and as the garden’s land is left fallow, the “via negative” has a powerful analogous metaphor in the initial “lesser work” of alchemy, the nigredo. This stage of “blackening” replete with dark and Saturnine imagery of mortality and putrefaction, ravens, skulls and skeletons, tombs and melancholy; in the anti-intuitive inversions of alchemy, it is not the dour and scorned end of all, it is seen as a key beginning purifying preparatory stage in the alchemical “work” of transformation as alchemy professes to see nature as its teacher and to “perfect” and accelerate its processes. Many orders of Freemasonry likewise begin with initiations that reflect much of the funereal imagery of the nigredo stage of alchemy and also many Catholic monastic ordinations require the newly ordained to cut off their hair and to assume radical face-to the-floor full prostration to symbolize the new monastic’s death to their previous life, not to mention the often malicious rumors that nuns slept in their own coffins, which may have inspired the most famous and infamous actress of the late 19th century, Sarah Bernhardt (who had actually performed here at the Galveston, Texas opera house), whose well publicized photograph of her asleep in her own dramatically festooned coffin, had incited the press by actually traveling with it while on tour.
Aside from Winter, the Catholic period of Lent and in particular the customs and public ceremonies of Holy Week in Spain are a perfect excuse to reflect on the “via negative” and the nigredo especially with the Mass of Maundy Thursday when all of the church images are draped and covered over with black or deep purple drapery. Much like many pre-Christian mystery cults, the abduction of Persephone in the Eleusinian Mysteries or of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld or even the ancient Egyptian mysteries of Osiris and Isis which go even further into similar imagery and metaphors of the nigredo and is also thought of as the birthplace of Western alchemy (the word itself retaining its Arabic article and Greek term for the ancient Egyptian term for their own land, the “black land”). No the myth of Christ’s torture, death and resurrection is not particularly original, yet the myth of Osiris has probably the most alchemical reference, with outright imagery from the nigredo of being tricked into getting into a leaden box by his brother Set (lead is associated with Saturn and the nigredo) being killed and dismembered by Set who scatters his pieces and his sister and wife Isis who re-collects his pieces and binds them together in mummy wrappings and resurrects his body through her love and through magic and who gives birth to his child.
Scholars have seen many of these death and resurrection myth themes as connected to agriculture, and while Osiris was seen as the god of the dead and of resurrection, his myths influencing much Egyptian funerary practices, his body is depicted as green in color and while visiting the Cairo museum, I noticed strange objects commonly placed in tombs that I had never read about in books before. They were silhouettes of the stylized shape of Osiris, much like a cookie-cutter that was filled with black soil and seeds and watered where sprouting seedlings would emerge out of the shape of Osiris’ body once the tomb was sealed much like and ancient Egyptian “Chia Pet”. I have even read a more esoteric Egyptologist’s interpretation of the mummy itself as an elaborate symbolic seed from which the spirit would emerge, which also reflects the essential resurrection or transformational theme of the nigredo stage in alchemy.
While the season of winter itself affects a natural introversion and the Catholic liturgical period of Lent is also a good excuse to look within and to reassess our lives and goals and also to learn to let go of the things that we no longer need or that no longer serve our best interests. Since 2016 numerologically adds up to the Hermit card of the Tarot, I would like to examine a practice that is a common activity of most monastic traditions regardless of religion, meditation. The inwards focused attention of meditation also has an alchemical comparison to going within and staying within the alchemical vessel of awareness. It is the turning of attention onto attention itself.
The practice of meditation has played a significant role in my own development, spiritually and creatively. I prefer to shape the way I write and the way I create and perform dances or “performances” to maximize the meditational experience and to allow it to become part of the creative and performative process in the hope and with a view that it will affect the reader or audience in a similar meditative capacity.
Mediation seems to be reemerging on the cultural radar again with key media figures like Anderson Cooper and another young anchor on Nightline who both recently hosted separate news segments about their respective introduction to meditation and of the role that it plays in their lives with daily practice. There are now numerous apps related to meditation and “mindfulness” and there are more organizations currently offering regular opportunities to practice serious meditation practice with a group that are open to the public, with a majority at no cost, than there ever has been. Yoga has become a multi-billion dollar market in the U.S. and while on the one hand, the desire for penetrating and accurate scholarship clarifying the historical context and detailed spiritual practices of various schools and movements within the development of yoga is now probably at the most sophisticated than it ever was both in India and in the West, it is equally true that it seems now that the primary draw to yoga is a reductionist desire for physical culture, the perfect body, weight and stress reduction. Yet as the alchemist’s once knew, there is no guarantee that the exact desired results will be produced from any one particular cherished technique, operation or experiment, and that patient empirical observation is needed as much if not more than the actual technique.
It is also true that in general it is highly ironic that there is no longer a real interest, curiosity or even knowledge of mysticism which is at the heart of the theory and practice of meditation and yoga. I would also say that the 21st century has also shown a somewhat entropic and conspicuous decline in interest in psychology as well as the “human potential” or new age thought. While certainly continuing as an established academic discipline and as an applied science, the influence that it exerted in the late 19th century, with its almost utopian promise and also even its early occult and even metaphysical associations, the 20th century saw the development of its fullest influence as the vanguard scientifically, culturally and even artistically. Psychology as a subject existed as a key aspect of most of the world’s earliest philosophical traditions both East and West, which included Buddhism to a large degree. In fact, out of all major world religions, Buddhism has to be the most psychologically themed one, yet ironically its central tenet denies the existence of any underlying permanent self and attributes the major cause of suffering to the frustrated search, belief in or attempts to establish one.
Meditation has also played a central aspect in Buddhist thought and practice since its founding some five hundred years before the common era, and one of its earliest sutras is a literal practice manual in a very simple yet non-religious practice in moment to moment concentrated focus on the breath’s natural pattern and sensation. Meditation became an “easy asceticism” that was an integral part of the Buddha’s Middle Way spiritual prescriptive recommendations between the harsh physical asceticism practiced during his time by radical Hindu yogic mendicants and of his former life of self absorbed hedonistic distracted sheltered life. While it may be debated that the Buddha never intended that meditation be practiced outside of a mendicant monastic context and training, there is a sutra of Buddha’s request by a king to teach him how he could practice and still fulfill his duties. More than likely that was from a later Buddhist text either of the more philosophical speculative expansionist reinterpretation of Mahayana or of the radical tantric texts. What is sure is that two of the prescriptive Eightfold Paths of the Buddha relate and refer directly to meditation, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. While Burma and Thailand have led modern movements to preserve and to promote early Buddhist meditation practices even to lay practitioners, much of early Buddhist practice or Theravada, had devolved into little opportunities for lay involvement in the religion except for patronage or sponsorship of the monastic community and the practice of generosity in order to gain merit in the promise that their next lives would be better suited to spiritual growth.
Before the turn of the last millenium there was a Time or Newsweek front page article on “America’s Fascination With Buddhism”. While the latest survey results of the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life in the U.S. shows that while still the majority, Americans who identify as Christian have declined by nearly 8% since 2007 and that those who do not affiliate themselves with any religion has increased by nearly 7% and those who identify themselves with non-Christian traditions has increased at 1% with Buddhism as part of that figure lately remaining stagnant at .7%. While Buddhism may be waning in popular interest and influence in the U.S., its historical associations range from the U.S. Army colonel from New Jersey who fought in the Civil War and later helped in Lincoln’s assassination investigation, Henry Steel Olcott, who as the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society became obsessed with early Buddhism and travelled to Sri Lanka in the 1880’s and became one of the first Westerners to formally and ceremonially convert to Buddhism, which while nearly disappearing from the land of its founding, Col. Olcott actually made significant contributions to its revival in Sri Lanka and founded several Buddhist colleges there and actually drafted a Buddhist catechism that is still in use today, to the popularity of the first public exposure to most Americans of both Hindu and Buddhist leaders and speakers at the World Parliament of Religion at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, to the growing popularity of Zen Buddhism in America in the 20th century with many teachers migrating to the U.S. and establishing practice centers to the immense popularity and cultural influence of D.T. Suzuki with the groups of American writers and poets who came to be known as the “Beats” as well as with emerging avant-garde artists and musicians such as John Cage.
There remains for me a certain romanticism to the Buddha’s story, maybe in part because I learned to meditate as a Shambala center along with a course in the basic tenets of Buddhism, or the notion that Buddha never claimed to be Divine, nor did he rely on or even accept the religious doctrines or dogma of his time nor did he insist that others follow his own teachings on his word alone, but become “lamps unto themselves”, or the simple repetitive imagery that abound in early Buddhist sutras such as stripping off the layers of a banana tree stalk and finding nothing left inside illustrating the futile search for the self, or that of the rhinoceros admiring his independence and single minded purpose as illustrated by his single horn or of the metaphor of existence as being in a burning building, or even of the historical personal conversion of the emperor Ashoka. There is also a deep underlying sense of sanity to Buddhism that may even be seen as an ancient form of existentialism, that has never waged war against the followers of another religion nor has it ever attempted to eradicate the indigenous religious practices of the cultures where it became established
Today more than any other period in human history, meditation is a particularly transgressive act. . Our collective addiction to multi-tasking and asynchronous communication and fractured attention pulled apart by clusters of infotainment and digital consumerism. The act of focusing on just one thing for an extended period of time and withdrawing oneself to do so is tantamount to 21st century heresy. Yet the way meditation is being “marketed” and practiced in the U.S, is stripped from any religious context, particularly with Buddhist Vipassana or “insight” meditation. While I essentially agree with the radical position of Thomas Moore in his latest book A Religion of One’s Own, to take the spiritually courageous stance to reinvent the concept of religion, spirituality and spiritual practice to a highly personal and meaningful concept and practice, it is counterintuitive that he also equally stresses that it be based on a deep knowledge, understanding and respect for tradition. While this may be considered a recipe for “cafeteria” spirituality, I would answer quoting the line of the fictional character Auntie Mame, “Life is a banquet and most poor son’s of bitches are starving to death”, and also why not? I think that there is a danger to attempt to remove meditation from the religious and spiritual contexts, aims and intentions from which it arose. While this seems in direct contradiction of the previous stance, it is equally Moore’s contribution to the subject of establishing a personal meaningful spirituality. It is not a modernist “tabula rasa” approach, nor is it a recommendation to allow gurus or spiritual teachers to do your thinking for you or simply be content with their “answers”, but to be equally committed to self-study of the various traditions surrounding the spiritual practices that appeal to you, to deeply investigate the history and historical contexts and the philosophy and theory that are connected to them.
Yet I disagree with Moore in his fundamental displacement of meditation in his recommendations to establish a personal spiritual practice. While he begrudgingly admits the students “could take a course in meditation”, he doesn’t include it in his primary recommendations. While I feel that intensive seated meditation may not be for everyone, and especially those with psychological problems including P.T.S.D. who in particular should not attempt it without professional treatment, having said that, I also believe everyone already has developed their own forms of meditation especially those enjoyable activities where they notice the sense of time has disappeared or where they are alert but the mind relaxes. The early experimental modernist writer Gertrude Stein is still an inspiring model to me of someone who had intimately crafted a meaningful religion of her own, whose spirituality was closely shaped around her regular creative practice. She had also developed her own unique approach to writing that broke with any expected expository linearity of language to utilize a radical moment to moment reflexivity that is normally found in the practice of meditation, that sought for a more authentically subjective translation of the relation between the linguistic signifier with the signified, pushing language to its limits. While her writings admittedly suffer from a lack of comprehensibility and even from aesthetic richness, because of its intensely focused hermeticism, the act of reading any of her works becomes a true practice of meditation as the reader is forced to relearn how to read without being given any of the expected cues of any ordinary discursive text. Aside from her disciplined practice of composition that sought to replicate actual processes of consciousness, she developed her own personal practice of meditation particularly when she moved to the South of France looking out over the rolling landscape from her house much like her artistic idol Cezanne, which she defined as a “continuous aiming of a thought”. She even recommended later in her career that writers “write meditations since she felt that no one could any longer believe in fictional characters in the 20th century”.
Whether leisurely cooking and enjoying the entire process as much as the finished product where you notice your mind relaxing and your problems or obsessions melt away like the trailing steam from the bubbling pot, or the experience of getting in the “zone” when running, or in dance where the rigorous discipline of practice turns to “play” and it begins to seem effortless or like Stein, simply sitting and watching the subtle changes of a beautiful panoramic landscape. But I do whole heartedly agree with Moore’s primary recommendations of the importance of including some form of honest and open reflexive awareness and assessment; while he recommends dream imagery awareness and even informal supportive psychological self therapy among friends, I have found that open “free writing” journaling practice an indispensable practice to compliment any spiritual practice to “ground” oneself and to practice active listening, to give yourself a safe space to notice your own feelings and thoughts. All too often students of meditation are taught that they should repeatedly ignore, let go or even deny their own thoughts and feelings to do the “serious” work of meditation correctly. One is able to find the results of recent studies on the Internet that are beginning to show some negative factors connected to meditation concerning dissociative disorders, dissociation and especially negative recommendations for patients with any type of P.T.S.D.
I have been a practitioner of meditation in its various forms and traditions for roughly thirty-six years and in hindsight, I will admit that I have personally experienced a full spectrum of its effects ranging from ecstatic bliss, at times as if my whole body had caught on fire with an intense rapture (which had never happened before I began to meditate), to helping me effectively deal with withdrawal symptoms of quitting smoking, to a distinct “flattening” out of emotion (which may have actually benefitted me in dealing with high school bullying and my decision to stay and finish school), and also to the development of a mild panic disorder (which was thankfully short-lived and may have actually been caused by ignoring and not effectively dealing with anxious and stressful situations at home). Also I have rarely been able to establish a regular daily set practice time and I have never engaged in an extended or intensive meditation retreat or workshop nor have I stayed with one exclusive school or teacher of meditation, yet I have gravitated towards establishing a personal devotional approach to meditation based on my studies of Trika Saivism since around 1993, all of which I whole heartedly believe should never disqualify anyone from being considered a “serious” meditator, spiritual seeker or from being able to receive the full benefits of meditation.
I prefer the advice of the obscure but influential early 16th century Spanish Franciscan friar, meditation teacher and author of the widely popular Third Spiritual Alphabet that changed the spiritual life of St Teresa of Avila, to “make all things your teacher”. This statement is reminiscent to me of the alchemists who sought to “follow Nature as their guide”: indeed there are important Neo-Platonic influences in the rich development of the practice and of the importance of meditation in the West that is connected directly to mysticism, as well as of the practice and theory of alchemy. Buddhism is unique in its establishment of an essentially mystical praxis and of the primacy of meditation while being non-theological and while denying the existence of a permanent unchanging self or soul; it became even more mystically oriented in the Mahayanist development of Zen which very much like the Trika Saivist Spanda school seeks to uncover the yogi’s underlying Buddha Nature or Original Self or svasvabhava as in the Spanda Karikas, one’s underlying “true nature”. I read my first Trika text as part of Paul Reps short pithy paperback, Zen Flesh Zen Bones of the wild and crazy Zen historical anecdotes and koans or the illogical exchanges between student and teacher that sought to demonstrate their own understanding: it was an equally pithy and illogical translation by Swami Laksman Joo of the early Trika text Vijnana Bhairav which is in a classic tantric form of a dialogue between Shiva, in his radical antinomian criminal form of Bhairav and Devi that lists a mala of short delightful yet highly unconventional meditation instructions and techniques, most of which that cannot be performed in the traditional withdrawn seated posture of meditation and some of which that must be practiced in the midst and in the moment of daily life.
While today mysticism as a trans-cultural phenomenon is widely dismissed scholastically as well as religiously from all the major religions of the West an Near East, it was not always so. There is strong historical evidence to show that Neo-Platonic thought inspired significant mystical developments in Christianity Judaism and in Islam. Spain was a very fertile site for this exchange following the Muslim conquest and the establishment of the Caliphate of Cordoba in particular the second Caliph Al Hakam II amassed a library from translations of Greek and Roman works from the entire Muslim world which may have contained the works of the philosopher Al Farabi who had done much to preserve the works of Aristotle and Plato with an emphasis on Neo-Platonic thought and who in turn influenced the philosophers of multi-cultural Muslim Spain such as the Jewish Maimonides and the Cordoban Islamic philosopher Averroes. Al Farabi sought to synthesize the philosophy of the Greeks with the mysticism of Sufism and he also wrote an early treatise on alchemy. Spain remained a major center of exposure and translation of Greek thought, through the early medieval period, that was preserved by the Arab scholars of the Muslim Golden Age which they encountered when they conquered territories of the Hellenic World. Their translations also preserved much of the Alexandrian context of philosophy that mixed magic, mysticism and alchemy with Neo-Platonism along with Greek philosophy. Ibn Masarra was a very influential Sufi philosopher of Muslim Spain who based his system of thought on the works of Pseudo-Empedocles which were Neo-Platonic elaborations of the thought of Empedocles that also emphasized the unknowability of the Divine as well as the importance of love in the ascent to perfection, he also had leading Jewish followers. Spain was also the home of Moses de Leon, the attributed author of the Kabalistic work the Zohar (which scholars see parallels in its importance of love with that of Ibn Masarra’s thought) in Guadalajara which was also the later sight of the birth of the Franciscan reforming mystical practice of recogimiento or “recollection” which was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism and even had literal “spiritual” alchemical reference in its meditative practices which emphasized collecting all the faculties within a radical interiorization as a path to mystical transformation, an affective and apophatic mystical practice of moment to moment coaxing of consciousness to enter and stay within the alembic or vessel of transformation of the heart center. There is also the Sufi practice of meditation known as Muraqaba which emphasizes “guarding or watching over the heart” which has a strong resonance with the practice of recogimiento. Southern Spain had a well developed movements of Sufism, many influenced by Ibn Masarra including the famous Gnostic and Hermetic philosopher Ibn al Arabi who was born in Murcia in Southern Spain. Alchemy as a metaphor for spiritual practice was also widely adopted in Sufism and was considered the most noble of all the occult sciences because of its mystical implications as even evidenced by the title of Al Ghazali’s work The Alchemy of Happiness that sought to achieve an ideological truce between the factions of the role of philosophy and Sufi mysticism and the religious orthodoxy of his time while highlighting the role of personal ascetic and spiritual discipline.
I feel that there is much more gained in life in the recognition of the mystical than by its rejection or denial. As Matthew Fox writes, “we are all naturally born mystics”, it is a deep and fundamental urge and response. One of the most beautiful things for me about the Trika philosopher, Abhinavagupta’s thought is his privileging of a deep experiential aesthetic sense along with his profound non-dual mysticism, so much so that he believed that a deeply experienced and authentic aesthetic emotion or experience is one of the highest possible sacrifices or offering to gift back to the Divine. While Plato denied the artist a place in his ideal Republic as he considered them as artificers and essentially dishonest deluders who traffic in fantasy and dreams, yet the essential virtuality of the aesthetic experience was itself prized by Abhinavagupta as being an easier and safer tantric synthesis of the goals of enjoyment and liberation that were free of the dangers of attachment to actual material pleasures.
Yet meditation remains an odd, unusual, unnatural (in that it is counter intuitive and against the grain of ordinary perception) practice that exists as a luminal pursuit outside of ordinary exoteric religion or even of philosophy or psychology. This very “counter-ordinary” quality made it an essential part of yogic culture and pursuits and was considered one of Siva’s favorite pastimes, sometimes much to the consternation of Devi as almost comically depicted in several Puranas. As such its bindings and reversals of the ordinary scattered outwards dispersed flow of consciousness and of the abilities to arrest it, suspend thought and to enter a trancelike absorption, like other physically extra-ordinary manipulations and bindings of yoga, as part of its essentially magical paradigm; these strange practices were thought to create a psychic or spiritual “heat” or tapas which could affect miraculous powers or phenomenon which were sometimes seen as proof of spiritual attainment or siddhis. While the practices themselves may be ancient, they were codified relatively late, nearly a millennium after the historical Buddha lived, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which distinguished the seated posture of meditation or dhyana from the state of psychic absorption or samadhi. There is evidence that would strongly suggest the likelihood that Plotinous and his followers practiced an abstract and interiorized form of meditation. Neo-Platonism has a deeply mystical theology with a positive non-dual message much like that of Trika Saivism or Zen, that man’s “original nature” is actually divine and all he need do is to “remember” it to realize it for which the practice of meditation is key to dissolve the blocks and obstacles of thought and attachments. Neo-Platonism played a significant role in the shaping of early Christianity, certainly with the growth of Christian Gnosticism, but also significantly shaping much of the thought of many important early Church leaders to the point that it is virtually impossible to eradicate Neo-Platonism from both Roman Catholic and Orthodox history and doctrine with figures such as Origen and St. Augustine. Meditation developed in early Christian life with the development of monasticism which grew out of the lives and habits of the Dessert Fathers, those hermits who withdrew into the deserts of Egypt to escape the religious persecution of the Roman government and of the chaos of the urban centers to live in solitude. These hermits formed loose associations while still living independently and some even resided within the then abandoned ancient Egyptian temples, carving and painting their own icons and images over the ancient frescoes, and remnants of the soot from their cooking fires are still blackening the ceilings of many temples.
Yet the recent discovery in the 1940’s of the cache of Gnostic and Hermetic texts hidden in large clay jars on a cave in Upper Egypt known as the Nag Hammadi library revealed that the lines of distinction between orthodoxy and heresy may not have been so distinct in early Christian monasticism. Alexandria became an unlimited all you could think of spiritual buffet with its cosmopolitan mix of Hellenistic Greek culture, philosophy and science with Christian, Jewish and ancient Egyptian culture and religion which produced the esoteric and culturally syncretistic mythic figure of Hermes Trimegistus a figure and attributed texts that would have tremendous effects on Western esotericism, the history of alchemy and even on the Italian Renaissance. Zosimos of Panopolis was one of the first recorded alchemists who was also Greek and a Gnostic mystic who believed that spiritual realization and mystic attainment were the real transmutations and meditation was one of the ways to achieve this. Whereas especially after the decriminalization of Christianity in 313 A.D. aside from actively persecuting the Gnostic sects and attempting to destroy its writings, meditation became increasingly problematized and conscribed to strict definitions of active reading and thinking about scripture with active discouragement among the laity in favor of vocal prayer.
In many ways deep meditative experience in the West began to be seen to deconstruct religion and its potential for unmediated religious experience began to be seen as a threat to religious structure and orthodoxy. Yet the strange apophatic mystical teachings of the mysterious Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite were still accepted as authoritative in the Catholic Church at least until the 17 century. Scholars have analyzed the text of his writings and have conjectured that he may have even been a student of the Neo-Platonist Proclus, and the emanationist implications of some of his theological writings even suggest Gnostic influence, yet St. Augustine considered him as “king of the mystics”. Dionysius’ text on Mystical Theology contains strikingly radical terms of negative theology and imagery of the need to transcend all imagery and sense experience in order to approach the Divine, “What the Divine Gloom is” and of “being led upwards to the Super Essential Ray of Divine Darkness”. His approach to mystic union termed apophatic or hesychastic emphasizes the radical transcendence of the Divine and was to be highly influential in the growth of various mystical practices as well as mystical reform movements within the Church from the first millennium of Meister Eckhart to St. John of the Cross in the 16th century, to the point that it may be doubtful if such mystical interpretations, writings and deep contemplative and meditative practices that advocated leaving aside conceptual and cognitive thought and imagery much like meditation came to be practiced in the East would have ever occurred without mysterious texts of the “Pseudo Dionysius” with whom Plotinus would likely have been in agreement. Such mystical movements came to be consistent with millennial prophetic, monastic and lay monastic movements that were ultimately futile attempts at Church reform in the highly political chaos and corruption of the Church throughout the medieval period which even saw up to as many as three separate warring Popes. Yet the mystical movements in the West only ended in fuelling the growth of the Inquisition. Even today after the Catholic Church has virtually overnight lost its moral authority in the minds of much of the modern world, at the exposure of its endemic corruption of the recent extensive history of child sex abuse and cover up, it is a sad point that Pope John Paul II thought it more important to condemn meditation and Eastern meditative practices in a letter to cardinals than to condemn the sex abuse phenomenon which evidence has shown he was aware of.
As NASA’s Scott Kelly has returned to Houston after spending an entire year in space, I remember the story of one of the first U.S, astronauts, Edgar Mitchell who was very vocal about his life-changing spiritual experience of seeing the Earth from space. He went on to found The Institute of Noetic sciences that researched the effects of meditation and consciousness studies because of his experience that he had in space. The first space race also coincided with the unexpected forcible shove of the Catholic Church in the 20th century, Vatican II. As with the first era of space exploration, it was also a period of great change and optimism for the Church, involvement with social justice and radical ecumenical dialogue with other religions, especially a renewed open dialogue and exchange with contemplative practices of other religious traditions, whether this was also partly the result of the popularity of Thomas Merton’s writings or the general interest in Asian religions and their various contemplative traditions. There was even the book Zen Catholicism published in 1963 by Dom Aelred Graham, a Benedictine monk: his essay “On Meditation” published in Studies in Comparative Religion Vol. 1 #1, 1965 is available online and is particularly worth reading. Thomas Merton was a best-selling author while living in a Trappist monastery as a monk whose writing began emphasizing the similarities of contemplative experience particularly in Buddhism and Zen and in contemplative Catholic experience and was even rumored to have been contemplating converting towards the end of his life dying in a freak electrocution from a fan in his room while in Thailand lecturing and had even remarked, “he wanted to become as good a Buddhist as I can”. It is also ironic that Merton was deeply affected in his decision to enter the monastery by the advice of a visiting Hindu sannyasi who told him that he should “explore his own culture’s religious traditions”.
While I am glad to learn that the monastery that Merton joined as a young man which he wrote about his conversion and spiritual journey in his best-selling memoir, The Seven Story Mountain is still in operation in rural Kentucky and is the oldest Catholic monastery in the U.S. and is a self-sufficient institution and farm, I am overjoyed to discover it has recently hosted several week long monastic interreligious dialogues, much in the spirit of Merton, between monastic and contemplative religious leaders of various faiths including the Dalai Lama. Yet while Pope Francis praised Merton on his recent visit to the U.S., there are no more Thomas Merton’s on the cultural radar of today within the Church who are vocal about exploring mystic common ground. Instead the voices within the Church are more about reinforcing difference and distinction while the rates of people entering the clergy are steadily declining both in the U.S. and abroad. Merton believed “Christianity had abandoned its own mystical traditions in favor of a Cartesian focus on the reification of concepts, idolization of the reflexive consciousness, flight from being into verbalism, mathematics and rationalization”. While the first period of exploration of outer space also saw a profusion of popular films and media, post Vatican II, about the Church and monastic vocation from The Sound of Music, Hayley Mills in The Trouble With Angels to Sally Field’s Flying Nun, this second more internationally cooperative mission in space has seen more divisiveness and entrenchment in archaic doctrine over sexuality and has seemed to silence the path of inner exploration of mysticism which meditation is part of.
While I now have little patience with orthodoxy of any type, it is interesting that the former monk and current best-selling author, Thomas Moore, is now recommending spiritual seekers to reinvent the whole project of religion for themselves, yet paradoxically he also emphasizes the importance of studying the world’s spiritual developments and practices in their own historical contexts and traditions. Yet meditation and contemplative practices seems to function on a totally different sphere or plane than the hard conceptual reification of doctrine or dogma. Since the first exploration it seems the Catholic Church has succeeded in quelling and almost erasing the memory and original hopeful and exploratory spirit of Vatican II, especially its ecumenical vision of respecting and relating to non-Christian religions as it has effectively erased almost all vestiges of the very sophisticated non-discursive forms of meditation, sometimes termed “mental prayer” or recollection (which term even evokes its Neo-Platonic influence) that developed for nearly a millennium. While their texts are still preserved such as The Cloud of Unknowing or Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet as historical works, their actual practice is discouraged and dismissed as antiquated with very much of a “Don’t try this at home” implication with the inevitable assurance that “traditional” mediated religious experience is safer. While these practices which are very simple yet very sophisticated offer a very unmediated and direct potential for religious experience that really rivals Zen, yoga and most other Eastern non-conceptual form of meditation. While I do believe that structured or guided meditations have a tremendous amount of value and potential therapeutic application, the unstructured and apophatic type that simply empties the contents of the consciousness of the practitioner can be very profound and offers a sense of spacious awareness as if the meditator had stepped out into space itself.
As in alchemy, this type of meditation can have a deep sense of dissolution, or of the dissolving of structure, boundaries and blocks that can be very disorienting for some people, but as in the initial stages of alchemy, it can also be a very fertile and creative process that allows for much more freedom and adds a sense of “space” to one’s awareness that can have a seemingly ironic boost to one’s sense of creativity by loosening the grip that language and time has on your psyche. Thomas Merton also wrote the he felt “’Christianity was content-heavy yet practice attenuated”. In strategically feigned ignorance, or more tragically actual which would indicate the triumph of historical amnesia in service of orthodoxy and of officially sanctioned self image of the Church, the near millennium of history of its development of highly sophisticated techniques of meditation have been expunged, censored and whitewashed by its self-created fictions of coherence and unity and orthodoxy; and the mouths and writings of its mystic Saints are taped shut as it reassures its flocks that their writings were not meant for the laity. John Paul II’s letter to his cardinals and every single one of its empty slavish aped and mindlessly repeated derivative “official position” communication by the Church minions now indirectly couch the subject of meditation in the “H” word (heresy) and another one of its favorite fear-mongering strategies, demonic possession. In blatant lies, it denies the existence of sophisticated non –conceptual meditation techniques and practices and powerful apophatic mystical thought within the Church, while now actively discouraging their practice by implied threats of it attracting possession by demons. I feel that these are masks for a deeper fear the Church has, that its deeply personal and experiential potential would obviate the need for the Church itself, the mediation of its clergy, its rituals and of course the obligation of financial patronage. The Church’s condemnation of New Age spirituality for fear of job security is historically ironic given the fascinating figure of Joachim of Fiore, a mystic, writer and visionary connected to the Cistercian order around the first millennium whose visionary interpretations of the Book of Revelation believed and predicted that there would be soon the dawning of a new age where the Church would be unnecessary and Christians, non-Christian and non-believers would unite. Fiore was revered as a prophet by the radical “Spiritual” Franciscans who dared to interpret St. Francis literally concerning his rule of not owning property.
Around the first great period of exploration in Spain a series of historical and cultural factors emerged during the period of Columbus’ first voyage within the Franciscan retreat houses of the Strict Observance that was to initiate an unprecedented period of inner exploration that seemed to bring to life Fiore’s millennialist vision of a new spiritual age by intensely practicing, preaching and proliferating and popularizing through public publication using the current information revolution of the printing press, of various spiritual tracts that encouraged laity to practice a variety of essentially esoteric techniques of mental prayer termed “recollection” which advocated that all are able to follow the mystical path regardless of station in life and popularized the path and techniques of recollection as a “shortcut to perfection” and much like the tantric esoteric tradition of the Spanda school, it promised that through the regular practice of its techniques and methods which essentially were a combined apophatic and devotional mysticism that advocated a radical introversion or paravittri of sensual, mental and psychic energies within the heart or crown chakras, which promised union with the Divine and that through its practice “even an unlearned woman could gain intimate knowledge of the most profound mysteries of faith and life”. Influenced initially by the 15th century ascetic reforms of Pedro of Villacreces of the Franciscan monasteries in Spain of the Strict Observance and of the mystical writings and ideas of Jan of Ruysbroek and the radical reforming movements of the medieval Low Countries that led to the formation of devotional lay monastic communities outside the Church in reaction to its corruption and disorganization that relied heavily on the mystical theology of the Pseudo Dionysius stripped of imagery in a devotional approach that was preserved in the writings of the Flemish Franciscan mystic Hendrik Herp and of the mystic writings of Hugh of Balma through the Spanish translation, Sol de Contemplativos another highly influential text of mistaken authorship and attribution that had been attributed to Bonaventure which some have felt even inspired the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. These meditative techniques were perfected by the Franciscan retreat houses and sponsored by the powerful cardinal Cisneros, and their practices fuelled and inspired the thought, writings and practices of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the last flowering of this type of “recollection” mysticism and meditation, yet it also fuelled the Spanish Inquisition and the condemnation and the placing on the Index of forbidden texts of many of the earlier authors who contributed to the recollection movement (along with its later manifestation of “Quietism” and Miguel de Molinos). The recollection movement sought to reform the Church, a very extremely orthodox and exoteric institution through instituting and practicing an essentially esoteric system and practice within the structure just as Kabbalah and as Abhinavagupta had recommended not overturning the orthodox structure of Hindu society by “being orthodox in public and Saiva and Kaula in private”.
After seeing the Academy Award winning film Spotlight, I seriously wonder if the Catholic Church will be able to survive this scandal and elaborate cover up to ever seriously be considered in any positive ethical light, or if it is even worth reforming; and it also calls to mind the prophesy of Joachim of Fiore. While Protestantism except for the Unitarians, Quakers and Shakers, has denied any place for mystical thought or meditation, our current alternative to religion or spirituality, secularist and consumerism equally offers no validation or place for meditation in a world view dominated by identity, ego, self-absorption, money, greed, time, speed, competition and popularity; while meditation can be very disorienting as it can cause a very profound sense of dissolution of these qualities, it also thrives on qualities that are the antithesis of those that our secularist and consumerist societies thrive on.
Yet meditation of any type also seems to require a certain practical groundedness which has been a hallmark of the Zen tradition. Likewise St. Teresa of Avila was a mystic known for her earthy forthrightness who preferred ultimately as a litmus test for any meditative or mystical practice or experience the Biblical verse “Ye shall know them by their fruits”. While meditation does require patience and a certain amount of time to reveal its benefits, it still is a valid approach to assessment. No matter if a person is able to sit in the full lotus posture for an entire weeklong intensive while eating, sleeping and taking walking meditation breaks following perfectly choreographed gestures of a Zen sesshin or become fully absorbed in consciousness in samadhi or achieve the highest illumination and union with the Divine, what are the fruits of these experiences in word, thought, deed, presence and interaction with others and society? I think it is even more appropriate to extend this verse to religion itself.
The Spanda Karikas takes a radical universalist stance that even insists that “the object of meditation of all theistic schools [religions] is nothing but the Spanda principle as well as it is the underlying subjective doubt of the non-theistic schools or of atheists, and that the diversity of forms of meditation is only a reflection of the absolute freedom of the Divine”. It reminds me of the remark of the Bengali mystic Ramakrishna on religious intollerance, “everyone keeps insisting that only their watch tells the right time”.
Matthew Fox may be the current incarnation of Joachim of Fiore’s prophesy in his 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium, as he write in Article 11, “religion is not necessary but spirituality is”. While I may not always be able to meditate everyday and I do not feel obligated to have to submit to grueling endurance tests of group meditation to be able to reap the benefits or even to consider myself a “meditator”, I know that it will always be at the core of my life, creativity, work, spirituality and enjoyments whatever these may be. I still enjoy rereading Francisco de Osuna’s popular and controversial guide to the practice of “recogimiento”, written in the early part of the modern age during the first Age of Exploration that initiated a movement of inner exploration, as a guide not only of developing a deep meditative non-conceptual meditation practice with a strong devotional “prayer” aspect (that I substitute a Saiva aspect for), but also for cues on developing a life that is conducive to meditation and how to integrate it throughout the moments of my daily life as I seek to practice its admonition, “Make all things your teacher.”
© Paul Smith, 2016
Photographs by Paul Smith