Chapter Four: Meditation and Recollection
Underhill defines Recollection as “the subjection of the attention to the control of the will.” It begins with the “deliberate and regular practice of meditation.” There is nothing special, according to her, about disciplining our consciousness: “The real mystical life,” she says, “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.” It is something that everyone must do if they “would get control of their own mental processes.” She then lays out the process of training our attention.
In describing meditation she says, “Take, then, an idea, an object, from amongst the common stock, and hold it before your mind.” And as with all guidance to beginning meditators, she warns that this is not nearly as easy as it sounds: “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.”
Eventually, through this act of focusing, we begin to merge with our object of meditation, to “sink as it were into the deeps of it, rest in it, ‘unite’ with it.”
“Moreover,” she goes on, “as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you from the perpetual assaults of the outer world. . . . 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.” And finally, in Recollection, you “turn this purified and universalised gaze back upon yourself.”
So here’s the process:
Step one: First we are to devote our attention to, meditate on, an object to such an extent that we are no longer aware of where our consciousness ends and the object begins.
Step two: We abide, protected from the world, in this meditative state.
Step three: Eventually, we discover an awareness outside of our ordinary consciousness, a witness that stands outside of our personal whims.
Step four: We turn this new found awareness back upon the personality and are able to witness our self.
For Underhill, this is just the beginning, the initial training of consciousness at the outset of the mystical path:
“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.”
However, this trick of consciousness is nothing in itself. It takes the addition of Purgation and a loving disposition to continue down the path.
Chapter 5: Self-Adjustment
Once we get our first glimpse of Reality, “Never again,” Underhill tells us, “need those moralists point out to you the inherent silliness of your earnest pursuit of impermanent things: your solemn concentration upon the game of getting on.”
But just seeing this truth is not enough. She assures us that we will backslide without self-discipline. Having recognized the fallacy of our old perceptions of what is real and important, we have to make systemic changes. This “drastic remodeling of character” is called Purgation, and it is “the second stage in the training of the human consciousness for participation in Reality.”
Purgation itself has two components: detachment and mortification. According to Underhill, detachment means stepping away from three very ingrained behaviors. It is “the refusal to anchor yourself in material things, to regard existence from the personal standpoint, or confuse custom with necessity.” And mortification is “the resolving of the turbulent whirlpools and currents of your own conflicting passions, interests, desire; the killing out of all those tendencies which the peaceful vision of Recollection would condemn, and which create the fundamental opposition between your interior and exterior life.”
As we see here, for Underhill, morality is more than just choosing to follow a set of rules. It is a question of our fundamental disposition. She points to one character trait as the most in need of adjustment: “You are enslaved by the verb ‘to have.’”
“The very mainspring of your activity is a demand, either for a continued possession of that which you have, or for something which as yet you have not: wealth, honour, success, social position, love, friendship, comfort, amusement. You feel that you have a right to some of these things: to a certain recognition of your powers, a certain immunity from failure or humiliation.”
But holding these beliefs keeps us from experiencing Reality: “So long as these dispositions govern character we can never see or feel things as they are.”
The answer, the path forward, is one of expanding our capacity for detachment, which Underhill does not see as cold or hard hearted, but as characterized by a compassionate recognition of the intrinsic value of all things.
“So it is disinterestedness, the saint’s and poet’s love of things for their own sakes, the vision of the charitable heart, which is the secret of union with Reality and the condition of all real knowledge. This brings with it the precious quality of suppleness, the power of responding with ease and simplicity to the great rhythms of life; and this will only come when . . . the verb ‘to have’ . . . is ejected from the centre of your consciousness.”
The effort continues, as we see in the title of the next chapter, through love and will.
Chapter 6: Love and Will
It is “by an eager outstretching toward Reality” that we “move towards Reality” and “enter into its rhythm.” Underhill says we must “look with the eyes of love,” which she admits sounds a little corny, but it couldn’t be more important.
“To ‘look with the eyes of love’ seems a vague and sentimental recommendation: yet the whole art of spiritual communion is summed in it, and exact and important results flow from this exercise. The attitude which it involves is an attitude of complete humility and of receptiveness; without criticism, without clever analysis of the thing seen. When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things . . . for their sake, not for your own. The fundamental unity that is in you reaches out to the unity that is in them.”
It is this effort of love and will that allows us to progress into what Underhill calls the Forms of Contemplation.
“Therefore this transitional stage in the development of the contemplative powers . . . is concerned with the toughening and further training of that will which self-simplification has detached from its old concentration upon the unreal wants and interests of the self. Merged with your intuitive love, this is to become the true agent of your encounter with Reality . . . .”
At this point we have seen that we begin by training our attention to see things as they are rather than filtering them through our enculturated language and self-serving categories. Next we find that the new knowledge brought from this awareness gives the lie to our old way of being in the world and, if we are to progress, we must stem this cognitive dissonance by adjusting our thoughts and actions to meet up with the wisdom we’ve gained. And finally, here we’ve seen that the path is still not passive. We must press on, through love and will, reaching out toward Reality.
In the next post, we will explore the results of all of this effort, which is the journey through what Underhill calls the Three Forms of Contemplation. They amount to ever-expanding circles of loving union with the World of Becoming or Nature, the World of Being or Spirit, and finally with the Absolute, whatever insufficient label we choose to give It!