When we think of meditation, we tend to think of Eastern meditation techniques. Many are familiar with zazen, for example—sitting, attending to the breath, and bringing the mind back from stray thoughts. Or maybe we think of yogic meditation, focused on a particular image or idea to the exclusion of all else. "Meditation" just comes with an Eastern flavor.
There's no problem with that. I really like mindfulness meditation, which comes out of the Buddhist tradition. But meditation didn't arrive in the West with the first Buddhists and Hindu yogis. Meditation has always been here, and the Western world has its own variety of meditational and contemplative practices.
Unfortunately, a lot of techniques were lost with the loss of the theurgic tradition. Theurgy is a spiritual practice, really more of a technology, designed to bring the practitioner closer to the divine. The word theurgy itself comes from the Greek word for "god" and the word for "work." Hence, theurgy is "godwork," or divine exercise. Theurgy reached its high point in the West during the period just before the fall of Rome, known as Late Antiquity. During this period, magicians, mystics, prophets, and priests traveled freely and shared ideas. It wasn't uncommon to find someone worshipping Isis, Zeus, and Mithras—an Egyptian goddess, a Greek god, and a Persian god—all together.
In this fertile ground, several philosophers cultivated elaborate techniques for rising upward to join the gods, in a process called henosis, or "becoming one." Two great schools of theurgy laid down pathways to henosis. Plotinus laid down a contemplative path, which this article will talk about. Iamblichus laid down a path of ritual and magic, but that is the topic explored in more depth in my book, The Practical Art of Divine Magic.
We don't know exactly what these philosophers did or taught as practical techniques. Their philosophical work has survived, and are elaborate and impressive examples of careful analytical thinking. But their practical exercises were oral teachings, or, if they were written down, did not survive the fall of Rome. But we have enough to reconstruct some techniques, and building off those reconstructions, find new techniques that work for us.
We know that philosophers of Plotinus's and Iamblichus's schools, called Neoplatonists, revered the writings of Plato, the fourth century student of Socrates. Plato describes a very simple contemplation in the Symposium. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, as a very fun bit of deep philosophy. Socrates regales a dinner party with his experience with a woman philosopher that he met on his travels. This woman, Diotima, is one of the few people who can leave Socrates in a state of mental perplexity (aporia, in Greek). Diotima tells Socrates that love, contrary to popular opinion, isn't a god at all, but a daemon, an intermediate between gods and humans. Moreover, love teaches humans how to reach the gods, how to return to the world of ideas and henosis. The meditation she describes is almost certainly a meditation used by Neoplatonists like Plotinus, and my own personal experiences with it are striking. Here is my summary and slight simplification.
The Meditation on Beauty, from Diotima
If you're familiar with Eastern meditation, you may think some things are missing. First, I haven't told you how to sit. Cross-legged? In a chair? We have no instructions from antiquity, but I find it helpful to sit upright, either cross-legged or in a chair, but I've also done this lying down. My absolute favorite is to do this walking around or jogging. I'll see a pretty bird, or smell the lilacs coming into bloom in the spring, and I'll be off tracing back that path of beauty to the One. You can do it anywhere.
There's also no focus on the breath. Essentially, I'd just say to breathe. If it helps you relax, try the four-fold breath of inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and holding for a count of four. But you can't always do that—I know if I tried it while jogging I'd pass out! So just relax and let your breath be natural, fast if fast, slow if slow.
You will find that your mind wanders. You'll be thinking, "That candy was delicious. Deliciousness is a kind of harmony. I see harmony in justice . . . I have to pay the mortgage before it's late." Don't panic. That's what minds do. Just bring it back, retrace your steps, and return to the original procedure.
Let me lay out how your thoughts might look if you try this. Let's say you just heard Satie's Gymnopedie, one of my favorite pieces of music.
That's so beautiful, you think. What's beautiful about it? It's got a soft, wistful gentleness. Lots of other beautiful things are gentle like that. Some subtle flavors, for example, or a faint smell of jasmine. Where do I see that kind of gentleness in human society?
Humans are gentle when they're dealing with the ones they love, like lovers with their partners, or even parents with children, or children with small animals. And they're gentle when they're aware that time is fleeting, that moments pass, and must be held lightly. People can even be gentle with those they dislike or fear, and when they are, that's really beautiful. When someone sets aside rage and hate and discomfort and shows gentle regard for another, that's a beautiful thing. What virtue is that?
Gentleness requires self-control. It's like when you pet a kitten. You don't want to hurt it. So gentleness is similar to the virtue of telling ourselves not to do something we want to do—wait, how's that? I want another glass of wine! Self-control tells me I shouldn't, but how's that gentleness? Oh. It's gentleness because I'll have more self-control if I speak to myself in a loving way rather than in a mean way. If I say, "No, you weakling, you don't need that second glass of wine, what, you want to be an alcoholic . . . " That just won't work. Instead, you say to yourself, "Yeah, that wine tasted good. You want more, and that's okay. But if you have more, it won't taste as good, because now your tastebuds are dimmed a little, so maybe you should wait on it. In fact, why not put the bottle away, have some nice water, and then see if you really want more wine?" That's more likely to work, because it's a gentle self-control, not a rigid discipline.
I'd love a glass of wine right now, maybe when I get home. I could have it with that ahi steak that I have thawing in the fridge. I bet a light red would stand up to—wait. I'm thinking about food, because I was thinking about wine, but I was thinking about wine because of self-control. I was thinking that self-control should be gentle.
Okay, so how is that like all virtues? Are all virtues gentle? Is courage gentle? Think about that guy standing in front of those tanks at Tienanmen Square. That was courageous, and so gentle. He didn't resist, didn't fight. Just stood there with his groceries in his hands. Or Martin Luther King. Or Gandhi. Lots of gentleness in their courage. What about justice? That almost has to be as gentle as self-control, because otherwise, we'd be way too harsh. We need to give gently, not push it on people; and we need to take gently, not snatch away or take more than we need. And then there's wisdom. We have to be gentle with our wisdom, too. We can't think we know more than we do, and we can't beat ourselves up for not knowing what we don't know. And when we know something, we need to be gentle in sharing that knowledge, or we're likely to do more harm then good.
Are all beauties gentle? Is a storm gentle, even though it's beautiful? It's strong, and—I don't know. Maybe. . . .
That part of the train of thought, I can't write, because it gets into the paradoxes of henosis that cannot be confronted by language. But you can try it yourself, with what you find beautiful, and see how far you get.
You'll notice, even if you don't have that ineffable experience of henosis, you'll still gain insight into virtue through this method. It won't take the place of insight meditations like zazen, but it'll help deepen your spiritual practice by making you more thoughtful and insightful. The great value of the system is that it works with your ideas of what is beautiful, as well as your idea of what is good and virtuous. It isn't a dogmatic path, but a practical one.
And that's what I love about theurgy as my spiritual path: it is inherently practical and flexible. I hope you try this meditation and receive some benefits from it. I'd love to hear from you if you do.