Contemplative meditation is a term that I’d never heard before I came across it in John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism, a book I can heartily recommend to anybody exploring any flavor of pagan practice. Contemplative meditation is a form of prayer and could simply be called contemplative prayer except that it has too many specifically Christian overtones to be acceptable to a polytheistic pagan, such as myself.
So, what exactly is Contemplative meditation? It is definitely not like what we think of as traditional or Buddhist style meditation wherein the objective is to sit quietly with your eyes closed, emptying your mind of all thought while concentrating only on your breathing. While training yourself to do that is a profitable tool for learning to practice mental disciple, it is by definition void of content and is, thus, not what I’m trying to accomplish on my spiritual path. Nevertheless, it’s important to eliminate distractions, and so contemplative meditation is best done in a darkened room.
Always begin with some sort of prayer of invocation. Verbalizing your intentions ahead of time can help you to maintain your focus. Invite in the god or goddess, the nature spirits, ancestors, principles or concepts that you want to be present in your practice. Then simply relax and concentrate on those intentions. Unlike traditional meditation, here you want your mind to wander. Let it go where it will, building chains of relations and inferences. The important thing is to not let your mind wander to anything outside of your stated intentions.
Beckett suggests lighting a candle and playing some soft instrumental music. He also suggests having a representation of what your contemplating, say a statue of a deity or a memento of an ancestor or of a concept. None of these are absolutely necessary as they are simply aides to help you maintain your focus. I personally use just a single candle. Most of the time, I sit with my eyes closed but sometimes I will instead focus on the flame atop the candle. Today we may be able to explain the lit candle from a scientific point of view, but at a primal level fire is magic and thus focusing on the flame is a great aide for appreciating that magic, again at a primal and not at an intellectual level. And isn’t that primal appreciation of the magic that permeates our universe the one common thread that all the various pagan paths share in share?
I try to meditate for about half an hour in a single sitting everyday. Exactly when I sit varies from day to day and correcting that is a spiritual discipline that I need to work on. I also have a meditation app on my phone that times my meditation and also offers a choice of soft ambient backgrounds, either instrumental music or nature sounds.
Inspired by Beckett’s description of contemplative mediation, I decided it was a worthwhile enough practice to give it a try. But, never having done anything similar and having my doubts about whether I could sit very long at all without my mind wandering far and wide into all my sundry deadlines, et cetera, I set my timer for just five minutes. I figured that I could force myself to hang in there for that long at least. I began with an invocation, verbalizing my intentions and inviting in the spirits, Brigid in particular as I’m on a Celtic path in my Druidry practice, and then turned on the timer. I began thinking about my relationship with Brigid, such as it is. I have several images of her on my personal altar and so she seemed like a reasonable starting point.
My mind quickly wandered to the spirits of place. Before the Europeans, the locality where I live was settled by members of the Kalapuya tribe. Their spirits are the ancestors of this place and while that’s a far cry from my personal Celtic path, one still needs to honor and respect one’s ancestors, not just those by blood, but those of place as well. And for a moment I was in their world, feeling what it felt like for them, how Mother Earth enveloped them and was their first teacher. Then, of course, the timer went off. Three soft chimes, not to startle me out of my reverie, but simply to remind me my commitment was fulfilled. Nevertheless, I wasn’t yet ready to stop. And even now, with the timer set for a full half an hour I’m not ready to stop when it goes off.
So, the obvious question is why do it, what is the point? But first, let me address what’s behind that question before attempting to answer it. We have been conditioned, especially in those nations where laissez-faire has become the dominant economic philosophy, to think in cost-benefit terms. Since cost is considered tangible, in this case the time expended in the meditation, shouldn’t one receive an equally tangible benefit? Of course, we readily make an exception for entertainment. Going to a rock concert, we not only commit time but also, typically, pay an obscene price for entry into the venue. Now the joy and happiness you get from being in the presence of your rock star idol and hearing them perform is still a benefit, but it’s an intangible one.
I admit the argument is subjective but I also feel an intangible and definitely worthwhile benefit in being as close to as you can get on this side the curtain, in the presence of the godden (a recently coined gender neutral term meaning gods and goddesses) and my ancestors.
The other obvious question is this: is contemplative mediation the only possible way to enter into that presence? By no means. Meditation is a specific kind of prayer. Another common way is through ritual and the accompanying offerings. The experience of well enacted ritual can be an adrenaline rush. But is divinity actually involved or like pomp and circumstance, is the experience just in your head. Only you can answer that question.
In my own community, through high day ritual, we celebrate the equinoxes, solstices and the four quarter days or fire festivals according to the Wheel of the Year. Typically, I feel a powerful presence by participating in these rituals. It’s like going with a friend to a party. Yes, it was fun and my friend and I had a great time with each other but what really makes a difference are those nice quiet dinners where we talk and come to really know each other. Contemplative meditation is the equivalent of those long, slow dinners, conversing and getting to know each other.
And that my dear friends is the point.