VALUES IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

by contemplativeinquiry

What form of inquiry best serves our times and the kind of consciousness we carry? This post, focusing on values, is the first of five on the topic. The nest three will cover methods and the final post will concern issues of interpretation.

Wishing to deepen my own intent and practice, I have been identifying helpful resources. One of these is Arthur Zajonc’s Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love (1). Having dedicated my own contemplative inquiry to Sophia, I was delighted to discover, in Zajonc’s approach, a Sophian sensibility.

In Zajonc’s account the purpose of contemplative practice is to join insight and compassion, wisdom with love. Such a practice supports an awakening into what the New England sage Henry David Thoreau called the ‘poetic and divine life’.  Culturally, this means opening to an ecological world view, and a larger project of “embracing methods of inquiry that can accommodate the great advances of science but not be limited by the dogmatic perspectives of materialism and its associated economics”.  Now retired, Zajonc was until recently Professor of Physics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, also directing its Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society – see http://www.contemplativemind.org . He was involved with setting up the Mind and Life Institute (see https://www.mindandlife.org), which, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, is concerned with the scientific study of contemplative practice. As well as this he is a former General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, and his specific contemplative methods derive from the Steiner tradition.

Zajonc models a contemplative inquiry that is in and of the world, yet makes a clearly defined space for itself. On one hand he quotes Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary General 1953-61, as saying: “in our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action”. On the other he offers the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s warning that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times”.

Zajonc sees science/contemplation/insight/service as a package, which it clearly has been for him, and his own advice on approaching contemplative inquiry is to begin with an attitude of humility and reverence. For some, the route is prayer. For others, it is a sense of wonder and awe towards nature. In the latter respect, he quotes John Muir: “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves” (2). Whether prayer or nature be the contemplative’s aid, there will be a certain setting aside of self and the moral confusions of egotism.

At the same time, Zajonc is from a Western tradition and sees a strong sense of individuality as a gift rather than a problem. A certain ‘inner solitude’, which makes us all potential hermits in the clamour of daily life, leads to fuller relationships, connects us to the ‘depth’ of the other, and indeed cherishes the very solitude of the other: solitude and love go together. Despite the power that group practice can have, Zajonc believes that solo practice is more essential. Group practice can become a ‘crutch’. Groups themselves need to honour freedom and individuality, and Zajonc stresses that the moral conditions for contemplative practice cannot be and should not be imposed from outside. I was pleased to read this. This view of the relationship of individual to group is very much what we have practised in Contemplative Druidry over the last four years, and it has served us well.

In recommended forms of preparatory meditation, we learn to enhance our sensory awareness, and our inner relationships with earth, water, air and light. We also learn to put space around our ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. They no longer consume us. As we hold them in awareness, neither falling back into them nor repressing them, we move from the standpoint of our storying selves to a silent self who can observe these dramas from a distance and with compassionate understanding. This opens up contemplative space, and teaches generosity through an invitation to practice it on our own distressed and rejected parts. Here Zajonc quotes Rumi:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing

And invite them in

Be grateful for whoever comes

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Contemplative inquiry is first person inquiry, working from the perspective of what phenomenologists call ‘the subjective life world’, yet it also reaches out to develop I-Thou relationship with what is being contemplated. Instead of distancing itself from direct experience for the sake of objectivity, “contemplative inquiry does exactly the opposite. It seeks to engage direct experience, to participate more fully in the phenomena of consciousness. It achieves ‘objectivity’ in a different manner, namely through self-knowledge and what [the 18th century German polymath] Goethe, in his scientific writings, named a ‘delicate empiricism’”.

Zajonc affirms that nothing can reveal itself to us which we do not love, so every way of contemplative knowing becomes a way of loving. Every epistemology [theory of knowledge] becomes an ethic. For him, contemplative inquiry is built on nine characteristics. This is my reading of what they do. The first two, respect and gentleness, set the conditions for aware engagement. With the next two, intimacy and participation, engagement becomes relationship. The next three are about the contemplative observer’s own willingness to change: the vulnerability of openness makes this possible; transformation represents significant responsiveness and change. ‘Organ formation’ suggests radical change, the development of new capacities fully to meet what we are engaging with – in the way that our remote pre-human ancestors became sensitive to light and gradually developed eyes for seeing. We know that intensive long-term meditation can change the brain, and even in modest and less obvious ways we are changed by what we attend to.  Zajonc’s last two characteristics are illumination and insight – the fruits of contemplative inquiry.

All of this makes me feel like a child in this field, and this does have advantages – novelty, wonder, lots to learn and explore. For now, ‘delicate empiricism’ is a phrase to take to heart.

  • Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 2009
  • John Muir Our national parks Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1901
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