Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
Within & Without
This is part two in a series of blogs that will focus on meditation and contemplative practices in Paganism. If you have not read part one, I encourage you to do so. Let's start with some more ideas and definitions about meditation.
Open meditation often starts with relaxation, then with a focus on your thoughts and feelings, without judgement. Then with the goal of being without doing and presence without what we normally call thoughts. We become like a transparent ball of awareness that senses as much of the universe as we can hold. One of the most common approaches in open meditation is to follow one's breath.
Focused meditation starts in a similar way but focuses on an idea, a phrase, a symbol to more deeply understand it. One of the most common approaches in focused meditation is the use of a chant, a mantra, or an image or object that is gazed upon or visualized. This not simply repetition or fixation to zone out or to dissociate, instead it is an attempt to become one with the chosen focus.
Before going any further, let’s talk a little bit about contemplation so we can see the relationships and distinctions between meditation and contemplation. Unfortunately, contemplation means too many things in too many different contexts. It has a secular meaning of giving something deep thought, and a wide range of religious meetings that vary from system to system. The word contemplation is often used as being synonymous meditation which further muddies the waters. Also some systems and traditions flip the meanings for meditation and contemplation. I don't have a problem with that, but for the sake of understanding these posts read them using the definitions that I employ. The word contemplation (cum templum) when taken to its Latin roots basically means within sacred space. Despite the fact that the word templum is also our root for the word “temple”, in Latin it refers to a place consecrated for auguries and other sacred work which may or may not be in a temple. For me, the golden thread that connects the meanings of contemplation that I prefer are all connected to the notion of taking and making time and space to do inward spiritual work. Here's my working definition for that very slippery thing that we call contemplation.
Contemplation is inwardly focused spiritual work that develops the capacity for true understanding and wisdom. While meditation develops our capacity to dwell in the brightness of being, contemplation brings us to clarity of action and interaction. Contemplation develops our capacity to co-create and to foster evolution. In short, contemplation and contemplative practices bring higher mind and higher heart together.
More often than not, the practice of meditation is the prerequisite for effective contemplation. Though contemplation, without the clarity of clear consciousness that is brought about by meditation, can lead to useful and profound insights, it can go no further than the fullness of what a person has already achieved. Through meditation and contemplation it becomes possible to bridge between all the realms: physical, subtle, seen, and unseen, so that they can be examined and understood through a unified consciousness. Only when this is done can true gnosis and true knowledge be gained. This work is as much for mystics as it is for magicians. Whether an experience was brought into your awareness by an inward quest or an externalized ritual, its intelligibility and its applicability are in part determined by what has been gained through meditation and contemplation.
The focus in this series is on contemplative practices for use in Paganism. In many mainstream religious systems, the goal of meditation and contemplative practice is mostly focused on communion with their version of God/dess. Certainly this is also part of a pagan approach to meditation and contemplative practices, but to my mind is not the largest portion. My take on contemplation as a Pagan is more in line with Plato’s concept of knowledge of the form of the good as the requisite attainment to becoming the philosopher-king of your life. If that doesn’t mean anything to you I suggest you look up Plato’s The Republic. Another way of saying this is that meditation and contemplation lead to a deep knowledge of the way things act and are so that you can operate in the world with an informed true will. For the sake of exploration and clarification, I've been speaking about meditation and contemplation as separate things. In my normal practice, both are usually present in varying proportions depending upon the work at hand.
A friend of mine asked me if her daily practice of chakra work would be considered meditation from my perspective. In truth it could be either depending upon how it is done. If by chakra work we mean the visualization of colors or symbols while toning and moving energy, then I would probably say it is a contemplative practice in the broad sense of the phrase. If on the other hand it is about working with the chakras as foci for states of being, then I would probably say it is meditation. I love to dance, but I do not find it easy to use dance in meditation or contemplative practice. I know a number of people who do some of their best spiritual work while dancing. Stillness and movement can both serve to illuminate both awareness and action; the real task is in discovering how you relate to both in your practice.
I'm fairly certain on what I think meditation is, but what constitutes a contemplative practice is much more mutable. Some say that reading sacred texts or prayers can constitute a contemplative practice. I would say that depends upon what is occurring internally. Is walking a labyrinth a contemplative practice? It certainly can be, but only if the person is doing it in a mindful way. Some of my friends have suggested that social justice work can also be contemplative practice. I suppose it can be in that it is possible to gain insights and flashes while feeding the poor or protesting. As we continue to expand what might be considered contemplative practice, I feel a need to draw a boundary. Living and moving through day-to-day life with an awareness of multiple layers of meaning and interconnection is one of the markers of spiritual evolution. I would call that living a spiritually awakened life; I would not call it living in constant contemplation.
Just as the beauty of music comes from the variation of sound and silence and levels of frequency and intensity, I find more beauty when meditation and contemplation are a time apart from the actions of daily life. It is by doing so that I reset and recalibrate myself so that I can engage in life better.
In my next post in this series, I'll be making suggestions about how to get started or to get back on track with meditation and contemplation.
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