bobby1933 (bobby1933) wrote,

Common Sense Mysticism: A Review of Underhill's Practical Mysticism (IV)



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 this 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 St. 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 favourable 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 licence 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

Now meditation is a half-way 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 formula, the "objects" and ideas--even the external
symbols--amongst which it has always dwelt. It is not yet advanced to
the seeing of fresh landscapes: it is only able to re-examine the
furniture of its home, and obtain from this exercise a skill, and a
control of the attention, which shall afterwards 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 amongst 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."

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
sword-point. 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
common-sense 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 coloured scene, and it will seem to you thin and papery: only one
amongst 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 a total possession of your consciousness: and are thus making
possible some contact between that consciousness and the World of

Now turn this new purified and universalised 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 that 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.

First reading: interesting but confusihg.
Second reading: clearer and more interesting.
Third reading: OMG!  I must reread this until i have abserbed its content.
This is the best description i have seen of the first two steps on the 8-fold Path.

But wait.  I am just getting started.  There are two more chapters before i even begin to consider contemplation, which is the door to mystical vision.

Recollection is the seeing of ordinary things from a new perspective, more "cleansed" and open minded.  Meditation is the vehicle of recollection.  It is like "a halfway house between thinking in contemplation."  One continues to think, but one does so in a more disciplined, focused, spiritual way.  Meditation is not easy, the mind is quickly distracted, bored. unfocused.  But repeated regular efforts at this practice, following one of many different techniquies (Ramakrishna. Centering prayer, TM. etc., etc. none of which are mentioned by Underhill, who favors the method of St Theresa of  Avila which is well described here) will lead to an ability to see with  fresh eyes.
This chapter is worth multiple readings by the would be mystic.  I would have to quote almost every word to do it justice, but that is done in  the cut above.  It is barely four pages.

Early in the chapter Underhill opines, that we must go to religion for our information and inspiration.  She is probably right; but i would not recommend focusing on a single religious tradition.  Mystics of all cultures have found reality to have the  same essence, but they can differ in the "forms" in which that "essence" is expressed.  Sometimes the Sufi seems clearer than the Hindu, at other times vice versa.
Tags: evelyn underhill, meditation, mysticism
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.