Chapter 4: A few exercises in contemplation, meditation and prayer

Definitions(c.f. O.E.D.)
(i) contemplation: 1. act of gazing upon, viewing mentally; 2. meditation.
(ii) meditation: act of exercising the mind, perhaps in (esp. religious) contemplation (on or upon subject).
(iii) prayer solemn request or thanksgiving, particularly in God's presence.

One has only to watch what is happening around us - at home and elsewhere - to see that we are almost all fragmented. Thoughts, words and actions, lacking proper focus, are carried out with insufficient attention to their implications and consequences. Frequently our heads tell us one thing, yet our emotions tug us to doing something else and we become confused and tired.

Why is this so? Perhaps the last chapter will encourage you to acknowledge that it is substantially dependence on rational mind at the expense of whole mind that is the main cause. The basis of such fragmentation is psychological, not social, not environmental; and it is futile to believe that your problems may be solved by recourse to rational thought. What is needed is direct 'treatment' in the form of contemplation, meditation and prayer.

This is a very practical outlook, and highly commendable. There is however a potentially transforming spiritual dimension to be discovered therein ...

Although (to reiterate) I have yet to undertake a lengthy commitment to deep contemplation, meditation and prayer, I have in fact made some effort - below I offer, very tentatively, some of my experiences; these may be few, but indicate an approach which is, I feel, fundamental to deeper understanding.

Example 1: Contemplation in 'Natural Surroundings'

Take a trip into the countryside (or a large park) and find a spot where you are not likely to be disturbed. If your mobility is restricted then sit in a garden or, failing that, find a large non- abstract (and preferably pleasing) picture of the countryside; if possible, obtain a tape recording of country-side sounds.

The idea of this exercise is to increase awareness of your senses in general and perceive things in a fresh manner. You may spend as long as you like - 20 minutes could well be useful.

All you have to do is, in turn, concentrate on each of your senses - sight and sound are probably benefitted most - and just observe.

When watching, try not to label objects (you could suppose that you're from another world). Just observe the shapes..., and then the colours..., and then the shades...; take a 'snapshot' of everything that is a certain shape or colour or shade. If you are acrobatic, you might even consider standing on your head! Just be aware that what you see can always be a fresh (child-like) experience.

When listening, if you hear a call of a certain bird try not to think, "Ah! That is a..." Just listen to the timbre. Closing your eyes may help. If you find your head getting caught up in a melody which is playing some accompaniment to Nature, then observe the tune and then gradually let it fade; then start listening afresh.

Similarly, when touching objects just observe the texture; when smelling/tasting observe the essential qualities without applying names.

When you feel ready, gently resume your way; if possible keep in mind this fresh approach to perception.

Example 2: Meditation - Observation and Cessation of Thoughts

Our brains are frantically active, like '24-hour commentators', incessantly bombarding us with often pointless comments. We ought to exercise better control by developing a clearer, more focused state of mind. Consequently, decisions will be more properly motivated and our actions will become more appropriate.

But how can we tame perhaps the most highly developed and active inter-action of mind and body? Well, proper (clear and unreactive) control of thought has been mastered by very few - I'm not one of these privileged folk -, but progress is the sure way to one's goal and the following has helped me to proceed. It is only my own 'home-grown recipe', though similar to a well-established meditation technique, Zazen. There are many different methods of meditation and they will suit different minds, so it is worth investigating/ discovering others at, for instance, a Buddhist Centre. In fact, if you are going to continue meditating, then you must find someone to guide you.

Meditation is usually structured in stages to help improve one's focus. Throughout this meditation, awareness of the whole body (which is a kind of platform/base) should be maintained.

Step 1
Find a quiet and peaceful spot wherever you choose and sit in an upright posture, making sure that you are as comfortable as possible. (The idea is to be relaxed, yet alert). Sitting on some cushions will probably be useful; posture is important.
Step 2
Allow yourself to become aware of the immediate surroundings and then gradually bring your attention to your person.
Step 3
Lower the eyelids and gaze lightly past the tip of the nose. Continue focussing your attention. Now start watching the thoughts - entering your head, and then leaving gradually. As more thoughts wander in, repeat this and try not to engage in the conversation; just keep letting go. If you find that your mind is reacting strongly to thoughts, with more intense chatter, then try to assume a more gentle disposition.
Step 4 (rustling of the leaves)
After a while the thoughts should reduce in frequency and intensity. Whenever you wish, try this step, which should calm the mind further.
Picture a pile of leaves on the ground; each time some thoughts enter your head, imagine the leaves being blown up off the ground and swirling; each new thought is a gust of wind making the leaves whirl ... until a gap in thinking allows them all to settle again. Just watch the leaves swirling and settling, so that in time you are almost instantly aware of any thoughts entering your head.

I notice, after a while of meditation, that thoughts are likely to be activated at each pulse to the brain; like gusts of wind knocking at your door, when let in, they burst through in an uncontrolled fury. The leaves may move without any trace of thought: this is evidence of the restless subconscious mind.

Step 5
Before easing out of the meditation, for a few moments draw your attention to the rest of your body; you should find increased relaxation there: a characteristic of meditation is that whatever the method, a calmness of the whole comes from focusing on one part. Finally, when ready, raise your eyelids slowly and observe how you feel in relation to your surroundings. After a short while quietly continue your day.

When calm enough, one may find that the focus will shift from the head to the centre of the body.

Example 3: Prayer - A partial contemplation of death

This contemplation is meant for reflection and is not intended as a regular practice. In response to comments I've received I suggest that if you find this particular example too uncomfortable, then please feel free to just muse lightly on it.

Prayer usually dives straight into the latter stages of the example that follows - which is a shame since, as I've shown above, the benefits are likely to be somewhat reduced. I feel that we may do well to perform some 'preparatory contemplation' beforehand.

Step 1
Look at something; watch closely. Now imagine you suddenly cannot see. [shut your eyes]
Listen to something; listen carefully. Now imagine your hearing disappears.
Touch something; be alert to what you feel. Now imagine a loss of touch.
Smell something; take a deep breath. Now imagine your nose is completely blocked.
Taste something; savour it. Now imagine your tongue is numb.

Step 2
What have you got left? Thoughts? What have you got to think about? Abandon the hopeless mental exercise they bring ... jump! (Death will force this).
Step 3
Now, what's left?

Darkness...

Emptiness...

yet... peace! ...

You have lost everything on Earth, but nothing that is spiritual (in Heaven, if you like). Focus on this peaceful void and you may find that the 'nothingness' becomes everything!

Step 4
Prayer (only a suggestion) .. Perhaps a light may shine - God's light, which radiates loving compassion in brilliant fashion. This is spiritual life in pure 'super-conscious' form; ultimately, nothing else matters.
Step 5
As in the examples above, whenever you feel ready, bring yourself gently back to your surroundings, reaffirm each sense in turn and resume the day peacefully.

The penultimate step in the exercise of prayer is my own expression of God, as it were; you may experience something completely different. However, I wish to point out that this act of prayer may happen spontaneously in any of the exercises; hence, prayer has a somewhat elusive quality which cannot normally be mechanically 'activated'.

A couple of other descriptions of prayer which I favour include one taken from a sermon on prayer by St. John Chrysostum:

" ... it is a state which endures by night and day." [my italics]
The other I heard at Mass in my local parish, "Prayer is a lonely, empty place where we may experience God's care ... and can destroy all conflict." Both indicate that mindless repetition of words is inadequate.

I suggest that if you are unfamiliar with such exercises then try them several times before proceeding to the next chapter.


Next: Truth and Reality ... | Main Index

- Paul Trafford 1996,97 Paul's home page