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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Meditation in the Western Tradition

In the Western traditions, meditation is not emphasized. It is even viewed with suspicion. But, it was not always so. In ancient times, meditation was part of the tradition. In fact, Jesus himself comes from a sect in which meditation was emphasized. I am aware of two books which deal with this topic in the western tradition.

Evelyn Underhill (The Mystic Way:Essentials of Mysticism) considers mysticism as “interpretation of life by life”. In this book, she uses as her source, the experiences of saints and “the first hand declarations of those great lovers of the Absolute” taken from available texts during the first 400 years of Christianity. Her comments suggest that the Liturgy of the Mass is a remnant of the mystic tradition of Christianity.

 She suggests that Christianity began as a mystical movement and that “the Founder and those who succeeded Him possessed the characteristically mystic consciousness, and passed through the normal stages of mystical growth”.  Later she quotes St.Augustine  as follows: “Interrogate thyself, O man” and “make thyself a step to the things that be above thee”.

An ancient classic Christian book called The Cloud of Unknowing documents several anecdotes on the principles of meditation.

The author of this book written in the 14th century is not known and he follows the tradition of negative theology (via negativa) of Dionysius, the Aeropagite. The roots go back to the early era of Christianity.  The author says that He (God) cannot be reached through knowledge, intellect and reason. This is the same view as that held by the rishis of India as stated in the Upanishads.   Instead, he suggests a path of intense contemplation, humility and love of God for the sake of love and not seeking any benefits (this is called charity).

In this teaching, the goal is spiritual union with God through worship with “one’s substance”. It is going through a “cloud of unknowing” and feeling that He is in our own being. In explaining the “darkness”, the author says: “When I say darkness, I mean a lack of knowing……. It is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eyes. And for this reason, it is not called a cloud of air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is betwixt thee and thy God”.

It further says that thoughts will fail in these efforts, because “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held” (Chapter 6). In essence, we have “to keep our doors and windows open” and it is only by His Grace shall we “know” Him.  “Then will He sometimes peradventure send out a beam of ghostly light piercing this cloud of unknowing betwixt thee and Him….” (Chapter 26)

One can see very clearly the similarity of these thoughts to those of the writings of the Upanishads and Buddha. All of them talk about the One Supreme, that One inherent in every one of us, about the futility of knowledge and reason to comprehend and about  the importance of contemplation (meditation) in our spiritual endeavor. 

There is the story of Martha and her sister Mary, both sisters of Lazarus, who was revived back to life by Jesus. The unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing says that this story is a metaphor for Active and Contemplative aspects of the teachings of the Holy Church. (It is easy to see the similarity to the karma (action-oriented) and gnana (knowledge oriented) paths described in Gita).

 In fact, there are three steps in our movement towards the Divine, says the author. The first is Active, in the form of practice of mercy and charity. The next is a mixture of active and contemplative. This stage is called meditative on “the Passions of Christ” and the “Joy of Heaven” and the final step is the perfect contemplative. This is not much different from what Adi Shankara said about moving from action in performing yagnas, moving to action without expecting results, to bhakti and then to knowledge.

The description of those who have reached the final stage of contemplation is similar to the description of the self-realized souls in the Vedic religion. For example, it says that those in the active stage of life respond to dualities of life such as praise and curse, good and bad, pain and pleasure. But those who have reached the final stage of contemplation feel no such dualities.

In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is the one doing all the cooking, serving and entertaining. She even complains to Jesus: “Ask her to help me” pointing to Mary. But, Jesus sees Mary deeply involved with listening to the teachings, and contemplating on them and Jesus approves of it. He even says that Mary’s approach is a better method for spiritual advancement.

The book on The Cloud of Unknowing also puts down all pretenders of meditation, meditation on saints and angels and the claims of those who claim they have seen angels and saints. “Surely he that seeketh God perfectly, he will not rest him finally in the remembrance of any angel or saint in heaven” (chapter 9). References are made to such statements as “how a man shall draw all his wit within himself” and “how he shall climb above himself”.

 In preparing for a contemplative life, the author recommends three initial steps:  Lesson, Meditation and Orison. By these he means reading (listening), thinking and prayer. Thinking as the author describes seems to be about one’s own weaknesses and about the goodness of God. It is not the “silence” as suggested in the oriental spirituality. He also emphasizes the intensity of feeling required in the thinking and the prayer. Just as suggested in the Gita, this author recommends “ thou shalt have discretion as in eating and in drinking, and in sleeping and in keeping of the body from outrageous heat and cold, and in long praying and reading, or in communing in speech with thine even-christian. In all these shalt thou keep discretion, that they be neither too much not too little”; but not in your efforts in prayer.

An interesting passage in Chapter 59 is a quote, the source of which is not given. It states: “There is no man that may ascend into heaven, but only He that descended from heaven, and became man for the love of man”.  It is so similar, not surprisingly, to the Vedic tradition.

“Look on nowise that thou be within thyself” says the author in Chapter 68.

In Chapter 73, the author states that He can be experienced only by His Grace at His time of choosing. Sometimes He bestows his grace after we exert our efforts. Sometimes, we profit by the teachings of others who show us a way.
More recently, Mindfulness meditation seems to be catching everyone's attention, probably because of its secular nature. In addition, recent scientific studies  have documented its usefulness and have established its effects on the structure and function of the brain.  

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