photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011
– by B. T. Newberg
It’s the third day of the retreat. In my experience, day three is the make-it-or-break-it day. The initial high has worn off, and the challenges have begun. Temptations to quit cloy at the mind, and your resolve is put to the test. This was true to my experience today. I’ll talk a little about that, and then about a very important topic: meditation.
The omen drawn last night from the Haindl Tarot was the Three of Stones: Work. Knowing that day three often brings challenges, I thought to myself, Now the real work begins.
Meditation I: Deep Relaxation
The last activity of each evening on the retreat is deep relaxation meditation. I use it to let go of the day and slip into a deep, restful sleep. It is widely recommended by psychologists and spiritualists alike, and is not hard to learn. You simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position, and bring your awareness to each part of your body, relaxing each in turn. Listening to a guided meditation recording can be helpful. Click the link below for an mp3 audio recording.
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Deep relaxation is something I’ve been practicing since high school, yet I found it difficult during my grad program this last year. I found myself so full of tension from study and work, that I couldn’t let it all go. I could only attain a superficial level of relaxation. Only now, during vacation after the end of spring term, am I finally finding myself able to go deeper. I have yet to reach the levels I used to reach, however.
photo by B. T. Newberg, 2002
Interlude: Ritual and Cognitive Dissonance
In the morning I awoke at dawn and went to my statue of Isis. As I poured the water libation and chanted, I could feel a reaction inside me against it. Quickly turning my gaze inward, I saw that it manifested as a warm, unpleasant sensation in my solar plexus, and it seemed to resist the idea of performing rituals before a statue. Intrigued, I used imagination to allow the feeling a voice, and it said in a cynical tone, Seriously? Praying before a statue? Have you lost it completely? Without responding to the voice, I realized what I was experiencing was cognitive dissonance. This is an uncomfortable feeling caused by entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time. On the one hand, I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods. On the other hand, I perform ritual to mythological gods for its psychological benefits. The conflict between withholding belief and performing ritual was creating cognitive dissonance. Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this might not be a bad thing. Instead, I could see it as a trigger for questioning. Why, exactly, did this part of me object? Was it genuinely concerned with rational consistency, or was it more worried about what others would think if they saw me? Was it concerned with my well-being, or the opinions of others? As I contemplated these questions, the feeling dissipated rapidly. In its wake was a sense of insight and self-knowledge.
photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011
Meditation II: Fire, Ice, and Fog
How often do we find our minds too clogged and cluttered to peer into its depths? This has been discussed with regard to divination and ritual, two practices which can help get past that surface chatter. The trump card, though, is meditation. Through a combination of relaxation and concentration, meditation is able to focus the light of introspection into a laser.
But there are many different kinds of meditation, so I should be clear about what I’m talking about. One kind, as seen above, is deep relaxation. Another is breath meditation. This is probably what I’ve found most useful over the eleven or so years that I’ve been meditating. There are already lots of excellent audio-recorded training talks available online (Gil Fronsdal, Tara Brach, and Mark Nunberg are personal favorites), so I won’t introduce breath meditation here. What I do want to introduce is an experimental meditation which I’ve been developing and exploring during this retreat. It belongs to a third type of meditation, namely visualization.
Visualization is the practice of picturing certain imagery in the mind’s eye, imagery which may have desired effects on the mind. For example, you may imagine walking along a seashore, and as a result begin to feel the calm that goes along with such an experience. Neurological research has shown that the same areas of the brain activate when thinking about an action as when actually doing it. In other words, there is no difference in terms of brain activity between skiing down a slope and visualizing it. This gives some idea of the potential that lies in visualization meditation.
The Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation, also called the Three Wells meditation, is a visualization intended to assist introspection of three kinds of mental phenomena: desires and aversions, repressed material, and mood states. There are many more species of mental objects, but these have been singled out for their particular utility in managing emotions in one’s daily life. Desires and aversions are visualized as fire, which greedily spreads toward an object (desire) while at the same time its tongues leap away from it (aversion). Repressed material is represented by blocks of ice encasing what your mind doesn’t want you to see. Finally, mood states are seen as mist or fog that body through the air and may obscure your vision. These mental phenomena are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but their influence can take you in places you’d rather not go if you’re not careful. Becoming aware of them breaks the spell of their influence, so that you can live free and fully conscious. That is the intention behind this meditation. A nuanced development of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation is available here.
Each morning during this retreat, I’ve performed the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation. Three wells are visualized, one filled with fire, another with frigid black water in which blocks of ice float, and a third with wisps of mist. By gazing into these wells, a picture of one’s inner state is revealed. The shape of the tongues of flame, for example, may suggest or bring to mind specific desires or aversions which are manifest presently but not necessarily obvious. In this way, ignored or missed thoughts and feelings can be brought into the light of awareness. Once noticed, they can be dealt with fruitfully by observing them, questioning them, and gently letting them be.
Of all the benefits I’ve ever experienced from meditation, by far the greatest is knowing what you are feeling at the moment you experience it. It sounds simple and automatic, but often we go unaware of our feelings, even intense ones. For example, how many times have you failed to notice yourself getting angry till a friend points it out to you? Or how many times have you walked into a crowd of new faces and not realized your nervousness till your words fumble coming out of your mouth? Awareness of such feelings gives you the opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision of how you want to act. Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes (or perhaps we should say, awareness is power).
In this retreat, I’ve become aware of feelings of excitement, joy, nervousness, embarrassment, tiredness, hope and hopelessness, and more through the help of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation. I’ve noticed unhelpful self-critical thoughts and self-aggrandizing preoccupations, as well as positive self-affirming thoughts. I won’t go into them all, but there’s one that deserves detail. It has to do with the tarot card drawn last night.
The tarot card was the Three of Stones: Work. This morning, as I sat in meditation, I vividly perceived a desire to present my experience in a certain way for this blog. Thoughts of how to present what I was doing so cluttered my mind that I could barely concentrate on what I was actually doing. I realized that I was turning the experience into work. With that discovery, it became easier to refocus on the task at hand, no longer harried by visions of how great it might look on the web. This illustrates how becoming aware of mental phenomena empowers you to take conscious control of how you live each day.
By now, a picture is starting to form of the psychological benefits that are claimed for spiritual practices. Consistently throughout this retreat, divination, ritual, and meditation have dug up important insights that might otherwise have lied buried beneath the mental clutter. If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is. This is preliminary evidence that Humanistic Paganism is a valid path capable of helping one fulfill that ancient injunction inscribed above the gate to the Oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”