MYSTICISM: Meditation And Recollection by Evelyn Underhill

Meditation And Recollection by Evelyn Underhill

From Practical Mysticism

Recollection, the art which the practical man is now invited to learn, is in essence no more and no less than the subjection of the attention to the control of the will.  It is not, therefore, a purely mystical activity.  In one form or another it is demanded of all who would get control of their own mental processes, and does or should represent the first great step in the education of the human consciousness.  So slothful, however, is man in all that concerns his higher faculties, that few deliberately undertake their education at all.  They are content to make their contacts with things by a vague, unregulated power, ever apt to play truant, ever apt to fail them.  Unless they be spurred to it by that passion for ultimate things which expresses itself in religion, philosophy, or art, they seldom learn the secret of a voluntary concentration of the mind.

Since the philosopher’s interests are mainly objective, and the artist seldom cogitates on his own processes, it is, in the end, to the initiate of religion that we are forced to go, if we would learn how to undertake this training for ourselves.  The religious contemplative has this further attraction for us: that he is by nature a missionary as well.  The vision which he has achieved is the vision of an intensely loving heart; and love, which cannot keep itself to itself, urges him to tell the news as widely and as clearly as he may.  In his works, he is ever trying to reveal the secret of his own deeper life and wider vision, and to help his fellow men to share it: hence he provides the clearest, most orderly, most practical teachings on the art of contemplation that we are likely to find.  True, our purpose in attempting this art may seem to us very different from his: though if we carry out the principles involved to their last term, we shall probably find that they have brought us to the place at which he aimed from the first.  But the method, in its earlier stages, must be the same, whether we call the Reality which is the object of our quest aesthetic, cosmic, or divine.  The athlete must develop much the same muscles, endure much the same discipline, whatever be the game he means to play.

So we will go straight to Saint Teresa, and inquire of her what was the method by which she taught her daughters to gather themselves together, to capture and hold the attitude most favorable to communion with the spiritual world.  She tells us – and here she accords with the great tradition of the Christian contemplatives, a tradition which was evolved under the pressure of long experience – that the process is a gradual one.  The method to be employed is a slow, patient training of material which the license of years has made intractable, not the sudden easy turning of the mind in a new direction, that it may minister to a new fancy for “the mystical view of things.”  Recollection begins, she says, in the deliberate and regular practice of meditation, a perfectly natural form of mental exercise, though at first a hard one.

Now meditation is a halfway house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.  The real mystical life, which is the truly practical life, begins at the beginning; not with supernatural acts and ecstatic apprehensions, but with the normal faculties of the normal man.  “I do not require of you,” says Teresa to her pupils in meditation, “to form great and curious considerations in your understanding: I require of you no more than to look.

It might be thought that such looking at the spiritual world, simply, intensely, without cleverness – such an opening of the Eye of Eternity – was the essence of contemplation itself: and indeed one of the best definitions has described that art as a “loving sight,” a “peering into Heaven with the ghostly eye.”  But the self who is yet at this early stage of the pathway to Reality is not asked to look at anything new, to peer into the deeps of things: only to gaze with a new and cleansed vision on the ordinary intellectual images, the labels and the formulae, the “objects” and ideas – even the external symbols – among which it has always dwelled.  It is not yet advanced to the seeing of fresh landscapes: it is only able to reexamine the furniture of its home, and obtain from this exercise a skill, and a control of the attention, which shall afterward be applied to greater purposes.  Its task is here to consider that furniture, as the Victorines called this preliminary training: to take, that is, a more starry view of it: standing back from the whirl of the Earth, and observing the process of things.

Take, then, an idea, an object, from among the common stock, and hold it before your mind.  The selection is large enough: all sentient beings may find subjects of meditation to their taste, for there lies a universal behind every particular of thought, however concrete it may appear, and within the most rational propositions the meditative eye may glimpse a dream.

Reason has moons, but moons not hers
Lie mirror’d on her sea,
Confounding her astronomers
But, O delighting me.
(Ralph Hodgson)

Even those objects which minister to our sense-life may well be used to nourish our spirits too.  Who has not watched the intent meditations of a comfortable cat brooding upon the Absolute Mouse?  You, if you have a philosophic twist, may transcend such relative views of Reality, and try to meditate on Time, Succession, even Being itself: or again on human intercourse, birth, growth, and death, on a flower, a river, the various tapestries of the sky.  Even your own emotional life will provide you with the ideas of love, joy, peace, mercy, conflict, desire.  You may range, with Kant from the stars to the moral law.  If your turn be to religion, the richest and most evocative of fields is open to your choice: from the plaster image to the mysteries of Faith.

But, the choice made, it must be held and defended during the time of meditation against all invasions from without, however insidious their encroachments, however “spiritual” their disguise.  It must be brooded upon, gazed at, seized again and again, as distractions seem to snatch it from your grasp.  A restless boredom, a dreary conviction of your own incapacity, will presently attack you.  This, too, must be resisted at swordpoint.  The first quarter of an hour thus spent in attempted meditation will be, indeed, a time of warfare; which should at least convince you how unruly,  how ill-educated is your attention, how miserably ineffective your will, how far away you are from the captaincy of your own soul.  It should convince, too, the most commonsense of philosophers of the distinction between real time, the true stream of duration which is life, and the sequence of seconds so carefully measured by the clock.  Never before has the stream flowed so slowly, or fifteen minutes taken so long to pass.  Consciousness has been lifted to a longer, slower rhythm, and is not yet adjusted to its solemn march.

But, striving for this new poise, intent on the achievement of it, presently it will happen to you to find that you have indeed – though how you know not – entered upon a fresh plane of perception, altered your relation with things.

First, the subject of your meditation begins, as you surrender to its influence, to exhibit unsuspected meaning, beauty, power.  A perpetual growth of significance keeps pace with the increase of attention which you bring to bear on it; that attention which is the one agent of all your apprehensions, physical and mental alike.  It ceases to be thin and abstract.  You sink as it were into the deeps of it, rest in it, “unite” with it; and learn, in this still, intent communion, something of its depth and breadth and height, as we learn by direct intercourse to know our friends.

Moreover, as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you from the perpetual assaults of the outer world.  You will hear the busy hum of that world as a distant exterior melody, and know yourself to be in some sort withdrawn from it.  You have set a ring of silence between you and it; and behold! within that silence you are free.  You will look at the colored scene, and it will seem to you thin and papery: only one among countless possible images of a deeper life as yet beyond your reach.  And gradually, you will come to be aware of an entity, a You, who can thus hold at arm’s length, be aware of, look at, an idea – a universe – other than itself.  By this voluntary painful act of concentration, this first step upon the ladder which goes – as the mystics would say – from “multiplicity to unity,” you have to some extent withdrawn yourself from that union with unrealities, with notions and concepts, which has hitherto contented you; and at once all the values of existence are changed.  “The road to a Yea lies through a Nay.”  You, in this preliminary movement of recollection, are saying your first deliberate No to the claim which the world of appearance makes to total possession of your consciousness: and are thus making possible some contact between that consciousness and the World of Reality.

Now turn this new purified and universalized gaze back upon yourself.  Observe your own being in a fresh relation with things, and surrender yourself willingly to the moods of astonishment, humility, joy – perhaps of deep shame or sudden love – which invade your heart as you look.  So doing patiently, day after day, constantly recapturing the vagrant attention, ever renewing the struggle for simplicity of sight, you will at last discover that there is something within you – something behind the fractious, conflicting life of desire – which you can recollect, gather up, make effective for new life.  You will, in fact, know your own soul for the first time, and learn that there is a sense in which this real You is distinct from, an alien within, the world in which you find yourself, as an actor has another life when he is not on the stage.  When you do not merely believe this but know it; when you have achieved this power of withdrawing yourself, of making this first crude distinction between appearance and reality, the initial stage of the contemplative life has been won.  It is not much more of an achievement than the first proud effort in which the baby stands upright for a moment and then relapses to the more natural and convenient crawl: but it holds within it the same earnest of future development.

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