We could give many reasons for meditation, but they can all be subsumed under one general purpose: we meditate to accentuate our spiritual evolution.
We evolve from the bottom up: first, mastering and perfecting our physical, astral, and lower mental vehicles so that they can be, in perfect power and purity, subsumed into the soul; then perfecting the soul until the higher mental and buddhic vehicles can be subsumed into our spiritual body; then perfecting our triple spirit until it becomes one with our monadic essence; and, finally, bringing our monadic essence to the Omega Point foretold at the end of the Christian scriptures, where Nirguna Brahman is poured perfectly into each monad so that each is the Unmanifest One and Unmanifest One is All.
In this process our first goal is to purify our physical vehicles—at both the gross physical and the etheric levels. This process is, of course, very important—but I do not think meditation has much direct relevance to purely physical purification; rather, it would be indirectly relevant: purifying and the emotions would lead us to certain habits, (for example, moderation in eating and drinking), which would tend to purify our physical vehicles.
It is at the next stage, the purification of our astral and mental vehicles, that meditation becomes directly relevant; and these are so closely connected—because of the emotions’ influences on thoughts and the reciprocal converse series of effects—that the purification of both vehicles can, for all practical purposes, be considered one process.
For this process we can begin by setting aside some regular time for reflecting on scriptural passages and other wisdom (reflecting on Intents in The Liberal Catholic Liturgy can be particularly efficacious); reflecting on desirable mindsets, such as courage, tolerance, patience, etc. and imagining ourselves acting in accordance with these good qualities of mind and feeling; or vividly imagining how some spiritual Master would think, feel, and act in certain situations. These reflections can build up desirable patterns and cause coarser energy patterns to depart from our vehicles into lower realms where they can assist the development of beings below the human level.
Purification is not an interminable process—if it were, one could argue, it would be a futile undertaking—but it is a long process, likely to require many lifetimes. Nonetheless, we need not wait till we have perfectly purified these astral and mental energies before moving to the next endeavor. After we have attained some reasonable measure of success with purification, we can begin the next step: concentration.
In concentration we aim to discipline our minds and emotions so that we can, for longer and longer periods, direct our attention exclusively to some prescribed area. Thus, this stage aims at control of vehicles already purified of coarser elements. Such intense concentration id often turned outward, when we work intensively or think about practical problems, but very few people turn such intense attention inward, to reflect on their own thoughts and emotions. Such inwardly directed concentration can lead to great understanding of ourselves, as we reflect, for example, on what antecedent thoughts have led to our pres4nt thoughts (the causal chain is most often not “logical” but idiosyncratic, conditioned by our unique histories—always going back many thousands of years, although such past-livfe information is not usually consciously accessible) and how our emotions are conditioned by thoughts the “validity” of which is questionable. This path of understanding is the most effective—probably the only effective—path to positive change. We do not, except perhaps in the very short run, change by forcing ourselves to change through a sheer effort of will—the defeated and repressed elements will in some unhealthy way reassert themselves, as psychoanalysis has so convincingly shown. Apart from understanding, moreover, there is a very real strength to be gained through such sustained concentration—it empowers the will. When we exercise we strengthen certain muscles; similarly, we strengthen mental muscles when we take control of our wandering minds. This is the reason for many methods of meditation, such as sustained concentration on our breathing in and out or attention to steps taken as we circumambulate a certain area or concentration on a candle flame or some physical object.
The third stage—beyond concentration—is called meditation a more restricted sense, although the whole process we are discussing is called meditation in a general sense.
F. C. Bannister has provided an excellent definition of meditation at this stage:
To thoroughly and exhaustively explore, experience, and comprehend a particular subject, so that every possible facet is examined in imagination and becomes a permanent example above, or an abstract idea such as innocence or loyalty. One
Can meditate upon a piece of poetry or prose, trying to extract from it every possible shade of meaning and understanding, bringing to it all previous knowledge, experience, understanding, and feeling, which in any way relates to it. If th subject of meditation involves action, then feel that you are actually participating in the action, if feelings are included then you actually feel. Thus the experience of meditation is involved in the subject of meditation. The meditator draws on his own resources to the utmost (7).
It is easy to see that meditation, according to this definition, provides a foretaste of a distant goal of evolution: the absorption into the soul of the astral and lower mental vehicles. For here the buddhic , intuitional vehicle is in charge: we understand and feel, but we are beginning to do so from the inside, not the outside-and yet we still employ our astral and lower mental vehicles, even though they are beginning to function not in and of themselves but as servants of our higher mental and intuitional vehicles; and, of course, the latter two in combination constitute our souls.
In the next stage, contemplation, the foregoing union is perfected. Our consciousness functions, if we are successful, not inour temporal personalities but in our souls. At the highest levels of contemplation our consciousness might shift—albeit ever so briefly in this life—from our souls to our spirits, in which case we would function briefly on the nirvanic plane. Very few Buddhist monks have attained this level, and the few that have succeeded have it attained it rarely and for short periods of time. Thomas Merton in The Ascent to Truth, citing St. John of the Cross, points out that a few Catholic contemplative monks have experienced this level and so desperately wantd to return to it that they have sinned seriously through immoderate asceticism and disobedience to their religious superiors(49—73). Similarly, St. Therese of Avila reported that she had never experienced this level for more than short periods of time.
Bannister observes that
As we contact other people and things through our physical senses, so, during contemplation, working outwards from our more permanent spiritual selves, we can contact the spiritual selves of others. Yet ‘contact’ is scarcely the word, for here all life is one (8).
It is easy to see that such a transformation to inner awareness could lead to the development of psychic powers. And here great dangers arise, of which we should all be aware. St. Johnof the Cross demanded of his followers the absolute rejection of visions, paranormal powers, etc.—maintaining that they were temptations to depart from the path to God. We perhaps need not go as far as he did, but we should always remember that any selfishness in such matters can easily lead to what occultists have termed the Left-Hand Path, and that path leads to terrible karmic retribution. I think, however, that the cultivation of such powers is permissible—such powers are natural at a certain point in our evolution—if we, to quote an oft-sung hymn, always remember what should be our overriding aim: to “lose the love of self and find the love of God.”
One method which seems like it would be suitable to beginners is that which Adelaide Gardner labels “recall” (47). In this practice, instead of attempting to hold attention rigidly on one object or one concept, one allows—indeed, encourages—one’s mind to wander to related concepts but periodically recalls the connection of any presently contemplated object or concept with the originally contemplated one and recalls ones attention if no connection can be ascertained. Adelaide Gardner provides the following example:
…the object selected is the face of a watch. With physical eyes closed, the mind pictures the watch clearly and is then allowed to think of time, of hours and minutes (as measured by the watch), of the length of the hands, of other types of watches (in comparison with this watch), and perhaps at that point the mind jumps to elegant watches of earlier centuries, to clothes of various periods, to the to the French Revolution…and the student realizes that he has lost contact with the original object. He is thinking of past lives, of all sorts of things, but not of the watch-face .
So he must work backward: past lives, French Revolution, period clothing, elegant watches—step by step—until he has returned to the timepiece in his hand. It may sound like a simple thing to do, but when five minutes can be spent without losing contact with the central theme, one has learned something about thought control (47—48).
This method, it seems to me, has several advantages over attempting to keep one’s mind focused rigidly on one concept or idea: in the first place it is easier (the strength required to keep an undivided focus on one object or concept is valuable, but a student may fail so much in the beginning that he gives up trying); secondly, it is consistent with the insight that everything is related to everything else and everything changes in itself and its relationships with other things ( a central insight of Zen and many other spiritual disciplines); thirdly, it can lead to greater understanding of the thing itself, as we contemplate its uses, its similarities and dissimilarities to other things or concepts, its causes and effects, etc.; fourthly, it can lead to greater understanding of ourselves and our own thought processes as we begin to understand why something assumes for us the significance it does by following our own often strikingly idiosyncratic train of mental associations; it can also augment the open-mindedness and flexibility so important not only in meditation but in life.
Anent this latter point I quote Randall Hassell’s The Karate Experience (a book I strongly recommend) :
In zen, we are encouraged to break our psychological attachments to ‘things’ and especially to thinking and theorizing. In karate this is manifested in the strong emphasis placed on allowing the body to move freely through intuition. Thinking takes time, and time creates suki. A pause in kata appears as a jerky, unnatural movement. In sparring it appears as instant defeat. In everyday living, too much thinking about the potential consequences of a decision results in frustration and anxiety. Facing a difficult life decision should be viewed in the same light as facing a skilled opponent; let your mind mirror your opponent (problem), and strike forcefully from hara the instant you sense an opening. …Zen teaches us to let our minds move freely (87—88).
This method can give us discipline and at the same time help us to “let our minds move freely.”
Bannister, C.F. “The Theory of Meditation.” Liberal Catholilc Institute of Studies Unit 2 Paper 1 (020.001—I), 1978.
Gardner, Adelaide. Meditation: A Practical Study. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1968.
Hassel, Randall G. The Karate Experience: A Way of Life. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1980.
Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1951.