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Friday, September 30, 2016

Meditating Contemplation

Still I work on my project on spiritual exercises.

Meditation and contemplation are exercises from ancient through modern times in the East and the West. For many they are the most important of the exercises to stretch the soul. For some these are two different exercises. For others one is the culmination of the other. For me they are two aspects or traits of one, unified human existence, i.e. corporeal being in the world through symbolic activity.

1. Meditation and contemplation as different exercises. Meditation is thoughtfulness and contemplation is spirtuality. Socrates describes thinking as that discourse with oneself before and after discourse with others in the public place or city. He describes his verbal battles with opponents in the city; and then he says that he meets his biggest opponent of all when he retires back home alone. Plato on the other hand discusses the transition from the shadows of forms on the wall of the cave to the direct view of the Good which like the sun is the source of all the pure forms. This is the philosopher released from the prison of opinion to the direct perception of the Truth in all its glory.

Thinking occurs through ideas or concepts, i.e. the use of words and other aural, visual, and tactile media that stand for and/or slice up experience of the environment into patterns that shape a world. Thinking is, therefore, symbolic behavior which the human species has mastered over all other known species. When somebody forms concepts and considers their utility in answering questions about the world, especially over a period of time, weighing the concepts in relation to other concepts, we call that meditation. When thinkers speak of meditations (e.g. the way Descartes, Spinoza, or Badiou do), they are talking about exercises in logical thinking on certain topics.

Contemplation has a religious connotation, as in the "contemplative life." It implies a more direct  or intuitive method of beholding essences without the use of media, analogies, or figures of speech or symbolic behavior. It goes beyond (or above or outside) words or other human artifacts to the essence of truth itself perhaps through what is called a vision or revelation from within or from outside nature. Contemplation leaves the realm of logic, science, and ordinary behavior. It is the provenance of the seer, the saint, the prophet, the ecstatic, the mystic.

2. Contemplation as the fulfillment of meditation. A life of meditation may lead to contemplation, the spiritual masters say. In mindfulness meditation, the sage permits words to run through consciousness while focusing on creating those words or maybe while reciting a mantra in order to leave the land of words and move to the pure land of illumination. The novice prepares through meditation in the world and then as sage is lifted to the heavens in contemplation. Thus, contemplation is a higher form of spirituality than meditation. It is a gift of the muses or other gods while meditation is the worldly labor of the corporeal mind. In Neoplatonism it is the difference between philosophic discourse and seeing the light coming from within or without. In Christian dogma, it is the difference between theology and beatific vision. It is vision unfiltered by matter. The purity of spirit.

3. Meditation and Contemplation as aspects of the same activity. The postmodern insight arising from both phenomenology and neuroscience overcomes the gap between thinking as mediated knowing and consciousness as direct knowing by giving evidence for an epistemology or theory of knowledge without the matter-spirit or body-soul dualism. This theory of knowledge is based in the understanding of the human organism adapting to its environment by the use of artifacts (thinking) while at the same time being present to itself in the act (consciousness). Its all part of the same package. One cannot be without the other.

And so with meditation and contemplation. Whether we meditate on death or our breathing or our belly buttons, we are in touch with our body so doing. When we discuss and focus on things in the world through discourse or art, we are in the same moment directly in contact with our selves and other selves acting symbolically in and to the world. Meditation that shifts the focus from things in the world to person, social, and world consciousness is contemplation.

Whether or not we are putting words to it, when we experience consciousness passing beyond our thoughts to further thoughts we experience the transcending feature of consciousness. When we do put words to it, we are shifting our focus from figure to ground, from my objective experience of the words being typed on the screen before me to my subjective experience of typing them and of my shoes filled with feet even before I thought about it.

We are intentional animals thrusting out, in, and up in the same moment. When we catch that moment, we feel that consciousness itself is revealing itself to us. We might even capitalize Consciousness or call it Spirit or God. It is sort of the pause in the meditative process that pulls us into and outside and beyond ourselves. It is the pause that refreshes. It occurs sometimes when we do not expect it perhaps while considering the vast panoply of stars, the patterns of an autumn forest, sexual intimacy, a triumph of artistic genius, or a resounding victory in battle or finishing a race. We call that experience ecstatic, mystic, and divine. It is there before we know it (focally).

Only poetry, not science, seems to capture intending, transcending consciousness in its glory. Yet the latest neuroscience is attempting to account for and explain consciousness without resort to multiplying entities unnecessarily (i.e. Occam's razor). The postmodern has no need to appeal ex machina (or in this case ex corpore) for an explanation. Nevertheless the postmodern person, unlike the modern one, realizes that the explanation for intentional, transcending consciousness can never be totally explained objectively. Yes, neuroscience might demonstrate the chemicals, the neutrons, and the synapses involved, that is, the wirings of the brain. The evolutionary psychologist might demonstrate how the brain developed in its cosmic and evolutionary journey to produce consciousness.

But the subjective experience of consciousness will never be explained objectively. (Again this does not mean that the subjective can be divorced from the objective or consciousness from the body, or spirit from matter. In fact just the opposite!) And so poetry, drama, philosophy, even religion, the kind that pulls us into the act of the poet, dramatist, philosopher, and visionary will always have their place in our life, action, and pursuit of greater wisdom.

Meditation and contemplation enhance that pause that refreshes. It is getting over the seriousness of the already formed objective world, by returning into the personal and communal consciousness that is creating the world while, in the same moment, pushing back into that world to re-create it. All the other exercises I have mentioned, breath control, remembering death, cognitive therapy, myth and ritual, reverence, discourse, humor, questing, and action, especially contemplation in action, are tools and manifestations of the soul-growing exercise of becoming more conscious as a person, a community, a nation, and a world.

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