What’s It All About?

What is the point of contemplation? What does it even mean to call oneself a contemplative? Merriam Webster’s dictionary’s first definition is as follows: “1 a: concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion. b: a state of mystical awareness of God’s being”, which is about the best of the dictionary definitions that appear in an online search.

Sam Harris, who has a way of nailing spiritual realities outside of conventional religious language, writes:

I believe that [contemplative] states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.

(Harris, Sam. Waking Up (p. 14). Transworld. Kindle Edition.)

William Blake wrote, in a book published in 1790, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” (The passage has inspired many works and attributions, notably the name of Jim Morrison’s band The Doors, and Aldous Huxley’s 1954 study of the spiritual implications of the use of psychedelics.)

In my experience, limited by my own personal abilities and failings, and lack of formal training, cleansing the doors of perception is precisely the core function of contemplation. As Huxley pointed out, the human brain (or more precisely, the mode of consciousness operative for most of our waking lives) can act as a reducing valve that restricts our minds to the mundane and acquisitive level where most of us spend most of our time. Huxley’s critics, including Thomas Mann and Martin Buber, pointed out that the effects of psychedelics are too subjective and transient to be considered equivalent to direct mystical experience, and I tend to agree with them. Interestingly, Harris’s early experience with MDMA (op. cit., p. 3) did help to point him in the direction of genuine contemplative practice and its fruits – as did my own experience, at about the same period of my life, with both LSD and, more strikingly, mescaline.

It was hard for me, in the early 1970s, to disentangle the idea of actual contemplative practice from the religions within which it had developed. Uncomfortable as I was, at least on paper, with the idea of becoming a Buddhist, with all the ritual and special language and texts that that seemed to entail, it was the nearest I could find to the spiritual and metaphysical yearnings with which I was filled, and which promised perhaps to provide an adult context for my childhood experiences while recovering from serious illness.

It was not until some years later that I met real live Christian contemplatives, at the SSM Priory at Willen, and became aware that there was still a living contemplative tradition within Christianity, and that texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, and Julian of Norwich’s Showings, were more than curiosities for scholars of the medieval church. Before I realised it, I found I was launched on a lifetime of contemplation in the context, mostly, of the Anglican church, and based on the practice of the Jesus Prayer

But suppose that contemplative practice were seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to deepen one’s involvement in the life and dogma of a religious institution? Suppose the aim were in actual fact simply the cleansing of the doors of perception, quite apart from the scriptural and social context of a community based on the mythos of a culture far removed from our own in time and worldview?

Wikipedia defines religion as “a social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.”

Contemplation, understood as a settling-out, a clearing of experience and perception, is at root a kind of inner seeing, an experiential encounter with the ground of being that gives rise to, and sustains, all that is – which, of course, is what my own long-ago metaphysical intuitions were leading me towards.

The enforced solitude of these unusual times, when all our habits and assumptions have been overturned by the present pandemic, is proving oddly fruitful. I should not be surprised to learn that there are many, cut loose from religious roles and commitments by the suspension of normal corporate worship, and maybe as unconvinced as I am by their sometimes desperate online simulacra, who are coming to similar conclusions. Some may of course drift into a kind of virtual New Age, “cyberseeker” mentality; but many more may come to realise that there is a cleanness, a directness, about a contemplative practice which can stand in the light of its own truth, without the excuses or scaffolding of dogma.

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