The alchemical tradition from the Western perspective developed a philosophy and system of spiritual growth which was shrouded in symbolism. Part of the reason much of the material from that time was communicated in such symbolically dense terminology was the need to hide the true meaning from church authorities. The work of Carl Jung, M.D., in the early twentieth century led to the revitalization of much of the symbolism and artwork of the alchemists. His suggestion was that the alchemists were encoding deep psychological symbolism in the spiritual imagery.
Many of the diagrams and images developed by the alchemists showed mandala-like patterns that were quite similar in form to the Yantras from Eastern paths. These images tend to flood the mind with symbolic expression, such as the image of the Azoth shown below. It can be used as a focus of meditation, much like the Yantra image from an earlier post.
The four fold symmetry, three fold symmetry and seven fold symmetry have specific meanings the alchemical literature. Dennis Haucks “The Emerald Tablet” is one of the most user friendly books to introduce the layers of meaning.
The aspect of focusing on mental repetition of words or phrases may be combined with focus upon an external image. In Eastern traditions, this may take a Mandala form, such as the Shri Yantra, below. To use this form of visual meditation, focus your attention on the central [bindu] point and allow your eyes to soft focus. Try to minimize blinking, but don’t let your eyes get too dry. When combined with a mantra, this can be a powerful tool to focus attention and still the mind.
Another quite common meditative practice across multiple traditions worldwide is the repetition of a word or short phrase. In the yogic traditions this referred to as a mantra based meditation. In the Christian versions, it is called contemplative prayer. This is the form of meditation practiced in Transcendental Meditation, with the mantra in this case given in the course of training.
The practice consists of choosing a word or phrase, and then allowing it to flow gently through your mind in a repetitive manner. When other thoughts enter awareness, and they will, gently bring back awareness to the word or phrase. Sounds simple! Hardly. Once the practice starts, the mind begins to bombard you with random impressions which form distractions. This is normal, though. No reason to become upset or feel that you’re failing, just gently bring focus back to the word or phrase. Try for twenty minutes once or twice daily. Monitor your results over weeks or months.
Although the contemplative prayer version of this meditation uses some form of phrase in your native language that has a religious connotation, most people find the practice more effective if they choose sounds without immediate meaning attached. Sounds that end with …..MMMMMM are more relaxing for many. Hence OMMM or AAUUUMMM can be excellent choices, or a brief phrase such as OM MANI PADME HUM is quite popular. Use any phrase you like, but try different sounds and see which work best for you.
One of the common experiences when practicing concentration type meditation, such as the breath exercise, is the intrusion of thoughts, memories, or impressions that distract your mind from the practice itself. This simple meditation exercise transforms what would otherwise be a distraction into the focus of the meditation itself. You can compare the experience of this technique with the previous, remembering to use it daily.
Sit or recline in a comfortable, stable position. Close your eyes, and let your breath flow naturally. Allow any thoughts or impressions to enter your mind as they arise. Try to simply observe the thought, and allow it to float away, much like a bubble in an aquarium. More thoughts will arise, and repeat the process. If all is simply stillness or blackness, consider that a thought as well, and let it flow away. Try to avoid attachment to any of the thoughts, and simply let them each float away. The experience should demonstrate the fleeting nature of thoughts and feelings, and this becomes more powerful if you don’t become emotionally attached to the material. Each thought should be released as easily as a bubble floating away.
Back in undergraduate school, I had the opportunity to take a class in Transcendental Meditation [TM], over a weekend during my freshman year. The concept that a simple practice could have potentially profound effects on both the physiology and psychology of a person was a stunning idea back then. The weekend progressed with lessons, audio tapes of the founder, and eventually the private revealing of the secret mantra alleged to be somehow specially chosen for me. A fellow classmate and I faithfully met each morning for the rest of the academic year and spent the twenty minutes in silent meditation. We figured that if we practiced together it would increase our likelihood of making the practice regular. I noticed throughout the year that I generally felt more relaxed and found the practice useful.
An equally profound realization crystalized later in the year, however, when attending a class led by the priest of our local Episcopal Church. He had described this as a course which would demonstrate a different form of prayer, called contemplative prayer, distinctly different from the more recognized prayer of petition common in church services. The Reverend at least provided some information that this earlier form of prayer had been quite central to the practice of early Christianity. As that weekend class continued, it became rapidly clear that the actual practice of contemplative prayer was in virtually every way identical to that of TM. The focus of contemplative prayer was a short phrase silently repeated, a mantra, but one in English.
What was special about this practice of quiet mental repetition? How or why did traditions so disparate as Hinduism and Christianity feature a practice identical except in the phrase of repetition itself. What kinds of benefits might accrue from such a practice? Does science have any information to bear on such an esoteric topic? What exactly is meditation, and what is the range of meditative practice? Good questions, and few enough answers.