Friday, March 11, 2005

Visualize this!

I know I usually talk about politics, gays, and gay politics on this blog, but every once in a while I like to discuss something else. Probably the only person who will find this at all controversial is my father, who inspired this particular entry.

It seems that some Christian pastors have begun to use visualization as a tool for meditation and worship. Unfortunately, it is a very passive activity, and my dad hates passivity and frou-frou in general. I am certain he would detest most of my rituals, too, because visualization is a frequent tool in Pagan meditations, pathworkings, spells, etc., and we use frou-frou a lot to generate mood (incense, music, candles, etc.).

In my father’s case, the pastor began by telling the group that they were on fertile land, then walking down into a desert. I figure the fellow was basing the meditation on The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, a poem lauded and exploited daily in both Christian and Pagan written meditations. All I can say is, it's a damned weird read.

The image of the wasteland is often used to illustrate life without God (or gods), life without purpose, or a life straying from its True Path. The leader of the meditations tends to either a) lead his/her subjects out of the Wasteland via a favored avenue, or b) renders it fertile via one device or another. It can be a very powerful emotional/spiritual experience if done correctly.

Father, being a literalist, said: "Most of these people have never even seen a real desert. How can they properly picture it to benefit from the exercise?" He went on to describe the desert: beautiful but cruel, with punishingly hot days and freezing nights, and filled with odd creatures.

The next day, I thought about his words and realized that he had done a damned excellent job of describing what a desert is like. It was the sort of description a good guided meditation employs to paint a picture for listeners. Of course, he really enjoys poetry, so there must be some love for metaphor in his nature.

Although guided meditations are generally a passive experience, a good one has its uses. Passive visualization helps people get in touch with the deeper layers of themselves - their emotions, their spiritual selves, even the subconscious. It is a good way to cut down on the mental chatter and daily worries that muddy the pond's surface so you can see the fish swimming underneath. If thoughts are then passively allowed to surface, one can also discover one’s true feelings about important matters without those pesky “shoulds” and “ought-tos” getting in the way.

Music, incense, and other devices are often very useful in this process. They tell your inner self (even Skinner thought an inner self existed) that something special is happening, something different from the everyday experience. In other words, you are getting its attention. If you meditate a lot, the accessories you choose can even help trigger the state once your inner self knows what they are supposed to mean - so be careful what you choose!

Active visualization, on the other hand, requires that you think before you think. You sit down and focus on a specific goal, like ‘ways to lose weight’, or go through a mental rehearsal of a planned action (e.g. a job interview). Not only can you come up with better plans this way, but the visualization itself is a reinforcement for your future actions.

An active visualization that possesses both detail and emotional/gut-feeling overtones is a very powerful tool. Pagans tend to think of it as a device for magical workings, but a good mental picture is its own spell. It would probably benefit most people, especially Pagans, if they regularly spent time sitting and thinking about what sort of future they personally want to have. We spend so much time focusing on aligning ourselves with the gods, opening our brow chakra, forging oneness with Nature, etc. that we often neglect our mundane lives. Which seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it, when one considers that the Pagan gods are intimately entwined with this world?

Sarah G


At 10:10 AM, Blogger Frank Glenn said...

Oh yes, I certainly do love metaphor. One of the great medieval rabbis, Maimonides, was an excellent allegorist in his interpretation of the written Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) was in final written form about 400B.C.E., it didn't speak to medieval or subsequent eras without a lot of interpretation (midrash).

Interpretation of Torah (or any other written document for that matter) begins with the "words written" (not authorial intent, original presumed audience, etc.) this relatively "literal" level is referred to as "pesher" or the "plain sense" of the text itself. On his deathbed, Maimonides said, "I should have paid more attention to the pesher."

The Latin (and legal) proverb "Res Ipsa Loquitur" ("The damn thing speaks for itself like a deacon caught in a ginmill.") springs to mind when I first look at a metaphor. If you stop there, your interpretive horizons are "estopped" to use another legalism, but you'd better at the very least begin there or forfeit (another legalism) any chance of fulsome interpretation.

As to "meditation" generally, you've well described my attitude toward it when it is done well. And when it is done well, I benefit terrifically from both the active and passive approaches. Here is where the pastor (and many like him)and I part company. Meditation (both kinds) is for itself, not for "a little something you do before getting down to the real business of Bible Study".

How does meditation work best with Bible Study? The great Talmudic rabbis tell us that one must read the scripture in question at least five times before attempting to discuss it. This dovetails nicely with "lectio divina", a meditation form often used since about the Second Century (Desert Fathers and Mothers). Although a general meditation technique, it has come down (primarily through the Order of St. Benedict) as an approach to scriptural interpretation. (I have a marvelous book by a Benedictine sister entitled "A Manhattan Psalter" which is the product of her meditation on the Psalms.

My basic point is that, public or private, meditation (such as lectio divina) is an indispensable adjunct to historical, critical, and literary approaches to Bible Study.

Now whether other forms of "meditation - passive or active, public or private" is something which would benefit me personally is something I really haven't investigated. My loss.

And besides, my former pastor (a typical product of '70's narcissism and a vapid "liberal" education) probably thinks "The Wasteland" is his backyard. :)



At 12:35 PM, Blogger Sarah G said...

Meditation narration, of course, can vary greatly. My friend Bandersnatch, for example, considers word selection to be one of the items that puts the listener in the proper mood. He is well-known for his 'Lewis Carroll' meditations with included glossaries.

My own approach to narration is very different. I meditate on the subject myself first, and then write down the images that come to me, fine-tuning them a bit as my own focus narrows. The end result? Generally a list of images and phrases that I fill in with ad-libs during the performance phase. This is one of the reasons my meditations don't appear on the Path of the Personal Divine site: most people are looking for something to read aloud, not a set of images they have to talk around!

I did base a Samhain meditation on the poem "Danse Macabre", using the Saint-Saens piece of the same name as background. It was wildly successful - and, of course, was based on adlibbing someone else's set of images. Maybe sometime I will select another poem for use, but only if I can get a tune as - er - inspiring to accompany me.

Sarah G


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