On Meditative Process
By John R. White, Ph.D.
The following amounts to the description of what begins as an associative-meditative event. Though it is possible that the content of the meditation is of some interest (though nothing terribly dramatic resulted from it), the experience is recorded here more to illustrate and understand the meditative process, especially how the process, though beginning with associative meditation, moved as if by its own impulsion toward higher forms of (non-associative) meditation. After describing the event, I will draw some tentative conclusions and questions about associative styles of meditation.
While driving back from some relatives’ house on Christmas Eve, a familiar irritation awoke in my psyche. I originally suppressed it, because I was driving and felt the need to concentrate. The annoyance nonetheless kept knocking at the door of my consciousness and, once I was on the highway – which felt like a safe enough space, since it was empty due to the holiday – I allowed a part of my psyche to open the door and entertain the matter.
The irritation, I began to understand, was provoked by the Christmas music on the radio and it was familiar because some piece of my psyche had felt the irritation from the weeks leading up to Christmas. Either through bad habit or inhospitable situation (such as driving), I had largely ignored the irritation or noted it superficially and shrugged it off. For whatever reason, the irritation felt like it was demanding my attention now.
A few songs which are viewed as “Christmas classics,” popular songs about Christmas ambiance ranging from about seventy years ago to the present, had just been playing and I had implicitly noticed my irritation growing as these songs continued. I was a little surprised at the irritation because many of these songs were a part of my growing up. Nonetheless, rather than bringing positive memories or vaguely content and sentimental feelings, they had been irritating me for weeks and were bothering me quite explicitly right at this moment.
The combination of affect (irritation) and wonder (curiosity as to why Christmas classics were particularly annoying right now) seemed to make for an apt atmosphere for associative meditation. Furthermore, since I could not give my full attention to the issue, associative movements in my psyche would be the most I could allow while driving. I consciously posed the question to my psyche: what is this irritation about?
Songs of Christmas ambiance
Once I posed the question, my psyche immediately responded by “singing,” as it were, the old English carol, “The Holly and the Ivy.” Though I was familiar with this carol and recalled at least a few of its lyrics, I noted that I hadn’t heard that song this Christmas season at all. Indeed, one thought which had accompanied some of my experiences of irritation a few weeks earlier at the music I was hearing suddenly came to mind, namely, that I had heard very few of the old English Advent and Christmas carols that I particularly love this year, these having evidently been replaced by other, more contemporary Christmas songs. In some ways, that observation had allowed me – too easily – to dismiss my irritation previously, as if my irritation were just a disappointment concerning my tastes versus those of the average Christmas customer. At this moment, however, the spontaneous production of the English carol in my mind, one I had not heard at least since the previous year, and its emergence immediately contiguous with the question I posed based on the meditative entering into my annoyance, suggested that some piece of my irritation went beyond mere tastes to something that was really different about “The Holly and the Ivy” and, say, “Winter Wonderland” – a song that had just played and one that I still knew forty-plus years on from having sung it in a fourth-grade concert.
I recognized right away that the feeling-tone of these two musical pieces were different, not only from their being of different genres and different eras, but also with a kind of feeling about the Christmas season that each left me with. Some of that difference of feeling no doubt had to do with the music itself and its style, but some might also have to do with the lyrics as well. Assuming that the sudden emergence of this song I had not heard (so far as I could recall) for a long time, as if in response to my inner query, suggested to me that I should take my meditations to the next step, comparing these two songs also regarding their lyrics.
Since I didn’t remember many of the lyrics from The Holly and the Ivy, I couldn’t immediately compare the carol and the popular song in detail. Two things I did notice, however, from a cursory look at what I recalled of the lyrics. (1) First, I noted that both The Holly and the Ivy and Winter Wonderland represent songs about Christmas ambiance. By this I mean that, at least at the surface, each of these songs appears less about Christmas per se, i.e. the Christmas Mysteries, than about the time of year, the celebratory atmosphere, the joy and other positive emotions, and so on, of Christmastime. Songs which underline the Christmas celebrations, rather than the Mysteries the celebrations have reference to, have been around for centuries and at this point in history they are part and parcel of our celebrations just as they had been in Renaissance England; (2) However, even from the scant lyrics to The Holly and the Ivy I could recall, I noticed a difference: though the English carol underlines positive parts of the celebration, such as holly as a Christmas decoration and experiences like “sweet singing in the choir,” it also underlines the symbol of holly, i.e. why holly is linked symbolically to the Christmas mysteries. In contrast, nothing in Winter Wonderland even remotely refers to the Christmas mysteries; indeed, there is no specific reason to consider it a “Christmas song” at all, because it is really about some of the fun atmosphere in winter rather than Christmas. This is of course not a criticism of the song or of its use at Christmas and, as I have noted, songs about Christmas (and winter) ambiance are at this point in history intrinsic to the cultural expression of Christmas. Yet this difference, it seemed, could denote a real difference of cultural representation when comparing the old English carol to the popular song. This difference, I guessed, somehow contributed to that minor irritation that had been bothering me over the weeks. But how?
The Holly and the Ivy
I decided to set my reveries aside, since I was driving and since I had only a vague recollection of the lyrics of The Holly and the Ivy. However, since the drive was fairly long, it seemed to me important to keep alive what I already was aware of meditatively, so I frequently returned to bits of the meditation or also to related associations as I drove, as if to keep it activated and vital. This at times meant singing the tune to The Holly and the Ivy to myself or recalling my fourth-grade experiences of singing Winter Wonderland, just as much as returning to the actual contents of the meditation.
The reason I did this is that I have noticed, at times, that when I don’t intentionally keep meditative material “alive” consciously until I note it down in writing, it tends to fall away into the unconscious and is often lost. So, though I did not pursue some of new potential lines of meditation that arose during the drive, because I felt it important to remain concentrated enough for the drive, I still attended to the existing meditative material by putting it on the mental equivalent of a “slow cook,” periodically and briefly reminding my psyche of its contents as well as related material.
Once I returned home, I took a few minutes to return to where I had been in my meditation, gathering up what scattered bits and pieces had already emerged and centering myself in an attempt to pick up where I left off meditatively. The next move, I decided, was to look up the lyrics of The Holly and the Ivy. That decision, however, was not only about the content of the meditation, but also about its process. Associative meditations tend to be on the passive side; they are more like the element of water, moving wherever the mind happens to go and formulating themselves around the content like water to a shoreline. Now, however, a supplemental, analytic approach was being initiated, one where air elements, elements of intellectual distance and analysis were being invited into the associative meditation.
I looked up the lyrics and sang them to myself, to be sure I experienced both the words and the ambiance of the song. This action – the singing of the song – seemed to awaken a deeper stratum of my psyche, moving me considerably beyond the original annoyance and into a partially emotional-experiential and partially an analytic state of mind. While tracing all the associated experiences would be too time-consuming to articulate, at the end of this part of the exercise, what appeared to be a new insight about the issue emerged.
To illustrate, let’s consider as an example what is often sung as the second verse of The Holly and the Ivy (remembering that these tunes were passed down orally so what is considered the “second verse” now may be quite different from the original).
The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Savior
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir
At a certain level, this verse and refrain are typical to many of the ancient carols: it sings of one of the decorations common to Christmas celebrations, holly; in this respect, it is also a song about the ambiance of Christmas, like Winter Wonderland (or White Christmas or Silver Bells or It’s the most Wonderful Time of the Year, etc.) Yet while having that similarity to Winter Wonderland, it also does something else: it relates the Christmas decoration symbolically to the Christmas Mysteries. Whether consciousness of the Christmas mysteries first produced historically the awareness of the symbolic value of holly or whether the holly was there anyway and then produced a symbolic connection to the Christmas mysteries is not important here (though, as we will see, the second is likely to be the case). Such questions of cause-and-effect rarely tell us much about symbols because the latter work according to correspondences rather than to cause-effect relationships.
I also noticed in the refrain reference to some of the ambiance of Christmas, such as the organ and singing, but also a linking of cosmological patterns to the Mysteries, in this case the rising of the Sun to the appearance of the Son of God. There is also some consciousness of material nature, in the mention of the running of the deer. Within this very simple tune and lyrics, therefore, are definite references to cosmos, history, and nature, all linked through a simple and in some measure “catchy” tune. The value of this latter should not be lost on us, incidentally, because music can appeal to relatively deep subconscious levels of the psyche and different sorts of music appeal to different levels, a point often missed in practical occultism. (A straightforward and practical discussion of the esoteric value of music can be found in Denning and Phillips’ Creative Visualization.) The song therefore has the potential to be a portal into the Christmas Mysteries, while simultaneously staying away from any very technical or theological thoughts or words.
As I went back into my meditative reverie, recalling my original irritation, my mind returned to Winter Wonderland. Winter Wonderland and similar songs, like The Holly and the Ivy, celebrate the ambiance of the Christmastime; that much can be granted. Furthermore, like the English carol, there are references to nature – snow, cold, etc. But the references are quite different and suggest a quite different relationship to the Christmas Mysteries.
For one, these references to natural phenomena do not relate to the Christmas Mysteries but refer exclusively to the ambiance of the season, whereas in the English carol the references are to both the ambiance and to the Mysteries. Furthermore, in both the lyrics and, I would suggest, in the music itself, there is a tone of sentimentality in the popular Christmas music, a longing for an idealized experience of Christmas celebration, rather than a focus on how the experience is bound up with the Mysteries themselves. Often the popular Christmas music is about “taking us back” to being children, to a supposed “magic” of Christmas (but a magic often bereft of the consciousness of the genuinely metaphysical nature of the Christmas Mysteries), a kind of yearning for Edenic innocence. The English carol (and much of its tradition more generally) does not do that. It appeals rather to the interplay of cosmic, natural, and historical-religious phenomena. Indeed, there is a sense in which the carol is initiating one into the Mysteries through these subconscious associations: the ambiance is not only positive but it is explicitly linked, symbolically and experientially, to the Mysteries.
It seemed to me that the popular music, in contrast, did nothing of the sort, either in lyrics or in the music, and that this was by no means just a recent phenomenon but stretched back in the American tradition to the age of post-WWII materialism, where the trauma of the war resulted in a strongly materialistic push in our culture, as if to compensate for the horrors our soldiers and their families had lived through. While sentimentality and materialism are not intrinsically negative (though a preponderance of them can cause a substantial imbalance in the emotional element of the psyche), they are not, as a rule, conducive to opening up the deeper subconscious strata.
Was this, then, the source of my irritation? It was certainly a piece of it. In order not to lose the original engendering experience of the meditation – the annoyance at the beginning – I turned back to it frequently. I found that the better I felt I understood what was going on in the experience, the more my irritation intensified. I took that as an indication that I was on the right path, that I was getting to the bottom of the irritation. However, I also noticed that, with the attainment of greater clarity – due largely to supplementing the associative aspects with analysis of the lyrics – more rather than fewer questions came to mind. That is to say, clarity did not satisfy the questioning, but engendered more questioning. It also seemed to me that the new questions were engendered less by the associative and more by the analytic dimensions of the meditative process.
“Cultural appropriation” and egregores
When I had looked up the lyrics of The Holly and the Ivy, I saw that it was probably a Yule song before it became a Christian carol. For some reason which was as yet not clear to me, this fact caught my attention. I decided I’d better not set this aside as I had the original annoyance and considered its significance. However, one thing that became immediately clear is that this question about the significance of the history of the song took me out of my personal experience. In other words, the meditation at this point was no longer only an attempt to understand myself and my experience; rather, my attempt to understand my own experience now led me to a new stage of understanding, namely, wondering about the song itself, not just what effect or significance it had for me. I note here that this movement on the part of my psyche was traditionally understood to be the “wonder” that stands at the beginning of philosophy, i.e. when we move from the particulars of personal experience to the generalities of the world which we are experiencing. The following reports some of my considerations.
As is well known, as Christianity spread throughout the world, it was a part of its missionary process to adapt the practice of Christianity in a given region to existing non-Christian religious practices as much as possible. This was particularly true of festivals and holidays.
This approach of Christianity is often criticized. One often runs into memes on Facebook, for example, saying that such and such a Christian feast is really some other pagan feast. While there may be merit to these points and to the popular contemporary criticism of “cultural appropriation” of pagan festivals by Christians, we should at least not delude ourselves into thinking that this was an exclusively Christian predilection. Rather, it was the typical move of all Western religions and, in fact, also stock-in-trade for esoteric traditions. It is a well-known and well-documented policy of the Roman Empire, for example, to explicitly honor the gods of the lands the Romans aimed to conquer, ostensibly to draw the good will of the foreign god toward Rome, and to leave the foreign land unprotected – perhaps as full-blown a case of cultural appropriation as one can imagine. At the time of the second Punic War, Rome decided to worship the Carthaginian “Ba’al-Ammon” as an aspect of Saturn, as a way of appropriating Carthage’s god, subsuming Carthage’s egregore and thus Carthage itself into the empire (Game of Saturn, Peter Mark Adams; Saturn Death Cult, Troy McLachlan). From that time on, it was incumbent on the priestly class of the Empire to honor Ba’al-Ammon. A different version of such appropriation could be attributed to none other than the Rosicrucians who, by integrating Christian symbols into the practice of Renaissance hermeticism and qabalah, changed the nature of Renaissance practice in certain respects and internalized a mystical Christianity – and presumably a Christian egregore – into Western occult practices.
In each of these cases, we can underline that, whether or not we approve of this style of appropriation, it is in fact a common practice. More important for our purposes, however, is to wonder why: why in the case of this English carol was it important to subsume symbolism from Yule into the Christmas symbolism?
The historical answer to this question is beyond my knowledge, of course, and in any case, I felt that the historical question would take me out of my meditative stance into a purely intellectual one. For the purposes of the meditation, the question was less a question of history than a question of value: why was it important for the carol that previous, non-Christian symbols be appropriated into it? This question, as I have suggested, is a more properly philosophical question, one that moves beyond the mere experiences of the world to wondering about the nature of the world one is experiencing.
Among the Renaissance inventions which had the most practical impact on human experience was the clock. With the advent of the clock, our cultural conception of time had to change. Rather than understanding time in terms the indications from nature, we began to understand time primarily in terms of the clock, i.e. in terms of a humanly-developed device for its measurement. Yet it is interesting to note that time, especially in our Western religious contexts, seems to have been experienced very differently prior to the clock.
On the one hand, there was the cosmological sense of time, i.e. time experienced in terms of the movements of the cosmos, such as the seasons, the changes in astrological time (e.g., the sun in Aries versus Taurus), the perceived movements of the sun and moon, and so forth. On a daily basis, this approach to time is usually measured by the movement of the sun from dawn until dusk and, at night time, the time period without the sun from dusk until dawn. On a larger scale, this sense of time is largely annualized and experienced as such, as we can see in annual festivals associated with seasonal changes. Whether we refer here to the fire festivals of the Druids or the calendar of Athens or Rome or the various annualized feast days and seasons of the Roman Catholic liturgical year, this experience of time is based on the experience of cosmic and natural shifts which occur according to an annualized and cosmic rhythm.
On the other hand, there is an historical experience of time, represented for example in the way we number years (BCE and CE) as well as in experiences in both our individual and our collective lives, whereby events occur which define a Before and an After. Events like births, deaths, marriages, baptisms and many other such personal experiences or collective experiences like July 4th, 1776 or 9/11 are not repeated events, even if they are celebrated annually, but are experienced in terms of history, i.e. as meaningful in terms of their unrepeatability and hence that they are not a part of the natural cosmological rhythm per se. Indeed, we often turn historical experience into annualized ones (e.g. wedding anniversaries or birthdays) honoring the historical event annually, but as a way of underlining the historical reference point and unrepeatability (e.g. naming how many years since one’s marriage or how many years old someone is). Though the celebration may be annual, it is an annual recognition of a singular, unrepeatable historical event.
This distinction came to mind as I wondered about The Holly and the Ivy, because understanding (and living) this point can represent something of what we might call the “balance of consciousness.” Esoteric practitioners in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance era were often called “philosophers of nature.” One important reason for this was that human life and culture was always in part understood on the basis of a meditation on nature. But the reason this reintroduction of nature was important at the time was as a counterbalance to certain excesses in the urban culture of the time. Cosmological experiences of time derive from the meditation on nature. In contrast, historical experiences of time are essentially cultural (rather than derived from nature): they derive from historical and culturally meaningful events and the reference of the “now” to those unrepeatable events (or at least events thought to be unrepeatable). Whenever one of these two types of time dominate too much over the other, usually some imbalance of consciousness arises. This is so because we are both beings of history and beings of the cosmos and it is essential to our nature that we be connected with each.
On this model, then, it would seem that there was more than a simple cultural appropriation going on with carols like The Holly and the Ivy. For if there is one thing which characterizes Christianity, as indeed also characterizes Judaism from which this particular element is borrowed, it is that existence is defined in historical terms, i.e. through supposedly unrepeatable events which define a Before and an After (e.g. the delivering of the Law to Moses or the birth of the Savior). On the one hand, this is one of the decisive contributions first of Judaism and later of Christianity to Western religious consciousness, namely, the idea that one meets the divine in history and the divine manifests itself in definite and unrepeatable historical events, conferring thereby historical meaning on the experience of time. In the case of Christianity, as Cullmann highlighted many years ago, eschatological thinking is inherent to the New Testament, i.e. there is an inherently historical meaning to the original Christian teaching, as expressed in its eschatological hopes (Cullmann, Christ and Time).
On the other hand, religions with a strong historical component tend to be one-sided, precisely because they are often historical at the expense of being cosmological. They therefore require a good deal of cosmological emphasis to counteract a one-sided historical imbalance. In the case of Christianity, its inherently historical and eschatological nature (at least originally) meant that it was highly susceptible to the imbalance of losing the sense of connection to the cosmos, something which the pagan religions it was often attempting to replace tended to be much better about.
Whatever was going on consciously, therefore, in the development of carols like The Holly and the Ivy, concerning the appropriation of pagan traditions, the unconscious movement here was an implicit recognition of imbalance, based on a purely historical experience, and the appropriation of pagan and non-Christian symbols an attempt to balance the religious consciousness of Christianity through adapting non-Christian cosmological experiences of time to a Christian religious consciousness.
Affect to insight
These considerations brought me back to the original annoyance I felt and what provoked it. The musical traditions I felt more connected to seemed to include something of that balance of consciousness, in this case linking natural and cosmological aspects of the season with the historical nature of the Christmas Mysteries. Most of the popular Christmas songs from the last seventy years or so do not do that. Nor would we expect them to do so, because Christmas celebrations in our time, like the culture out of which it comes, tend to be materialistic and sentimental, just like the music which expresses it.
So why the annoyance? I might still not be entirely clear about it even now, but my current speculation is the feeling that my reactions were less about the music per se than about the predominance of this purely “ambiance music” over the time leading up to Christmas this year. It felt like it was not just happenstance but part and parcel of an intended commercialization of the holiday, appealing to the materialism and sentimentalism which is neither celebrating the Mysteries nor honoring the annual movements of the cosmos, and in some ways prying us apart from the balance of consciousness one would hope to be associated with Christmas. The songs themselves were not so much the issue as the feeling of manipulation by there being such a preponderance of such songs – manipulation of course being no great surprise from a standard form of media. Another way to put this would be to say that the annoyance I felt was actually the tip of a deeper iceberg: the feeling that the apparent innocence of Christmas music is not so innocent at all, but the work of contemporary “sophists”, trying to keep us locked up in the Cave (Magic of Philosophy, Part Two). What this insight will mean for me in the future is still an open question.
The meditation itself, though it kept me occupied, did not necessarily yield a dramatic result (at least at this point): it confirmed the general feeling of sophistic control in our society, only adding to that general point the application of its force to a somewhat different area than I had considered before, namely, Christmas music. But as I said at the beginning, what I find more interesting were the processes of the meditation. Because the meditation did not occur in one sitting, but was rather something I returned to a few times, the processes, which I describe here schematically, seemed to be put in sharper relief.
- The first movement in this process came from an affective part of my psyche, without my intention, and from a relatively surface level of the psyche: an affective experience of irritation and annoyance. Because of the relative superficiality of the experience, I more or less automatically ignored the experience for some weeks, even though it was repeated frequently. Only when I paid attention to its constancy did I finally recognize that something in me was demanding that I take it more seriously and, further, that it could be a portal to a deeper experiences.
- When I realized that it was time to take the annoyance more seriously, the attitude I took (and evidently needed to take) was wonder or curiosity. I believe this is an important thing to underline, because looking for quick answers is always a temptation with meditation, whereas wonder or curiosity are attitudes which do not look for answers too quickly and can allow the nature of the impulse to unfold in its own way. This attitude is perhaps why the affect could become a portal to deeper experiences.
- Once some of that unfolding occurred, I realized that I could not continue with a purely associative-meditative stance but also that I was not in a situation (driving) which was apt for other kinds of meditation. However, rather than either giving up on the meditation entirely, I purposely tried to keep it alive and vital, “on the slow cook” as I put it, through reminding myself during the drive of what had occurred meditatively and expanding the experiences through simple memories and singing to myself. This guaranteed that the meditative material did not fall back into the unconscious.
- Thus, once it appeared I could go no further with purely associative meditative experiences (“water”), I did not give up on the meditation itself, but interpreted that situation as an invitation to adjust the kind of meditation I was doing. This seemed to me important, since I am conscious of times when I had in fact abandoned a meditation because it came to a dead end at the associative level, rather than entertaining the possibility that another level of meditation was perhaps required.
- Adding an analytical level of thought (“air”) to the watery associative meditation led to a different kind of approach, something which felt like it was invited by the direction the meditation had taken. At the same time, I frequently returned to the original experience of annoyance. The latter acted as a kind of “control” point or reference point, so that I would not lose the original experience or what it might be trying to tell me about myself.
- However, adding this analytic level of meditation also engendered a new set of questions. These questions were born of the curiosity and wonder characteristic of philosophy as well as the associated pull or eros (Magic of Philosophy, Part Two), which impelled the meditation beyond personal experiences and thoughts to questions about the world, e.g. cosmology, history and the nature of time. Though one might relate philosophy to “air,” as we have seen, it is, according to Plato, the highest form of eros, i.e. it is derived from an intense desire for understanding the world and thus has more the quality of fire.
- I notice that the movement in this meditation could with some justification be understood as beginning with Yesod (association and affect), moving to Hod (analytical thinking supplementing the original associative meditation), then to Netzach (passionate questioning about the world).
The description of this process raises the questions (1) whether associative-meditative processes require or would at least be improved typically by supplementing them with other “elemental functions,” the “watery” being supplemented by “air” and “fire” and (2) whether associative-meditative processes may always – at least in principle – lead to higher level forms of meditation, linking Yesod with Hod and Netzach.
John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests concern the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He has been a student of several esoteric traditions.
The Mind of Hermes – Visionary Experiences in Western Esotericism
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