One-sentence summary of “Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry”: Contemplative science seeks the same objectivity as conventional science, but differs in one very important way: where conventional science seeks to disengage from the direct experience for the sake of objectivity, it seeks engagement in the direct experience, in order to contribute to phenomena of conscience, reaching objectivity through self-knowledge, what Goethe called “delicate empiricism”.
By Arthur Zajonc, 2008. Published by Lindisfarne Press
Full title: “Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love”
Note: This guest chronicle was originally written in French by Pascal Lenormand, author of the blog Comme une Aile de Papillon
Chronicle and summary of “Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry”:
Arthur Zajonc began practicing meditation more than forty years ago, at about the same time that he began his serious studies in Physics. Since then, he has sought to combine contemplative and scientific research. However, it was only at the start of the 2000s, in particular as a result of a meeting that he moderated in 2003 at MIT between researchers in cognitive science and Buddhist scholars and monks, the Dalai Lama among them, that the dissemination of these ideas began to grow. Since then, meditation has been making an invaluable contribution in an increasingly broad range of disciplines (from Law to Psychiatry, from Sociology to Music and Architecture) and universities and this is just the beginning.
In the Middle Ages, the practice of contemplation was devolved to monks, while the larger portion of society was dedicated to a productive life. In our era, however, our problems are many and no monastery wall can protect us anymore. We are called upon to be both deeply reflective AND externally active. This is the new geometry of life.
This book was written to respond to this need to incorporate the contemplative life to active life. This method of contemplative inquiry is necessary because the political, legal and economic approaches to progress no longer suffice as a response to the challenges of our time. We need new research methods that can integrate the major advances in science, but which are not limited to a dogmatic perspective of materialism and the economy that is associated with it.
Nowadays, Arthur Zajonc considers that most of the positive things that he has performed as a teacher, scientist, activist, father, and writer are drawn from the source of his contemplative inquiry. This book, designed as a practical guide to contemplative inquiry, is based on his experience, so it is not the work of some guru. Although some spiritual terms may be used, the sights are not trained on religion. Whatever the case, it is the reader’s responsibility to try such or such a practice, and to validate the one that is the best fit.
Chapter 1 – Overview of the Path
Contemporary contemplative inquiry
The practice of contemplation involves solitude. It is not a case of rumination, but a special form of returning to the past, of vigilance in the present and a vision of the future. Gradually, we learn to become emotionally intelligent. Of course, it does not involve meditating all the time, because the fruits of our time spent meditating will permeate every aspect of our lives. Solitude is the real place to begin. It is all the more important because solitude is a characteristic of our modern era. Therefore, to accept this fact and move on allows us to discover a new depth: instead of isolating us, taking care of our solitude connects us to another’s depth in a way that was previously impossible.
The cultivation of virtues
There is no connection between virtue and the contemplative practice. That is why many secret services use meditative techniques for military purposes. Meditation does not guarantee the ethics of the person who practices it. That is why the practitioner can cultivate a series of mental dispositions which lead to virtue, among them, in particular, humility (which invites us to leave our selfish interests to one side) and devotion to the high principles that we seek to embody.
Very often, and in particular when we sit down to meditate, we are assailed by the disordered flow of our emotions and our thoughts. It is therefore essential to be able to, in so many words, pull ourselves out of the flow and no longer be subjected to it. Here the author cites Martin Luther King who, on the evening on which his house was devastated by a bomb, knew how to find a safe place inside him, a place of peace from where he could address the crowd. Finding this kind of “higher ground” from which to consider our inner life is a big step towards the “silent self”.
The birth of the silent self
The silent self is a mystery, permanence that is higher than our social self. Meditation allows the encounter with this non-me, this “something” that has nothing in common with the conventional social self. It is a huge resource in real life because when faced with a test, practice enables us to find this higher place. We live the situation with intensity there, but with more security, and it is not rare that the people we meet will also behave in a different way. Yet we are not simply seeking to control our emotions, but to truly become generous and graceful and that is not going to happen overnight!
Meditation and contemplative inquiry
This preliminary contemplative work can deepen to become contemplative inquiry which may lead, if grace is present, to contemplative knowledge.
Contemplative science seeks the same objectivity as conventional science, but differs in one very important way: where conventional science seeks to disengage from the direct experience for the sake of objectivity, it seeks engagement in the direct experience, in order to contribute to the phenomena of conscience.
Meditation is an alternation between focused attention and open attention, a sort of “breathing” of attention: we intentionally focus on an object of contemplation, then the object is released and the vigilance remains open and non-focused: cognitive breathing.
The return journey
Meditation is not an escape route, but preparation for life. It is therefore essential to come out of meditation, by the “door to gratitude”, bringing the fruits of the meditative life to real life.
The contemplative experience
It may happen that meditation leads to exceptional states of consciousness, to “contemplative experiences”. Traditions have diverging opinions on the question; some consider them to be mere distractions, others fundamental elements. In this field, the potential problems come from our attitude, not from the experience itself. The healthiest attitude is, therefore, acceptance, trusting that explanations do not have to come immediately. We are on a path of knowledge that requires patience more than anything else…
Chapter 2 – Discovering the Door
Attending to the interior
Our world has two sides. The external one with all its agitation, in which we struggle every day and the other internal one, silent and often unobserved. In meditation, we turn towards this forgotten half. It is always present, always calm, and within it, our wisdom will find its source. It is only by making the choice to return there that we can live a full life, both inner and outer.
Rhythm, tempo, and posture.
Apart from the factual issues (how long, how often, what position, etc.), one point remains essential: you cannot meditate quickly. Time spent meditating is a time of artistic creation, time for the beating heart rather than a time for thought. We can draw on the support of groups of practice or bodily techniques if they do not distract us from the solitary heart of meditation.
Starting with wonder
The entrance to meditation is by taking the path of devotion, a non-religious concept. Often, recourse to nature or to images of nature helps us to feel this dimension. Gradually, we are immersed in an image of nature, moving from amazement to devotion, sometimes up to full identification.
Prayer can also be of help, although for some the religious connotation holds a strong negative association. We can nevertheless turn to traditions with which we are less personally involved.
Openness to the unexpected
Breaking the tyranny of logical thinking can also help us to enter onto the path of meditation. To do this, the use of Kōan, short Japanese poems with no logical solution, allows us to live a dilemma (for example “What is the sound of one hand clapping? “), a space of vacuum for thought. We move temporarily into an inner world that is not subject to the laws of cause and effect. The consciousness of this passage is an important step on the path of devotion.
Chapter 3 – Finding Peace, Cultivating Wakefulness
It is common to have a reaction of pushing back during the first experiences because we are uncomfortable when confronted with our mental disorder. It is often far from the peace that we imagined! Therefore, to find peace, it is important to cultivate inner hygiene aimed to strengthen five aspects of our thought (practices are provided for each).
- Attention: Our ability to keep our attention on the same object. Do we direct our thoughts? Or are they in reality led by random stimuli such as those exercised by phones, street signs, memories and associations of the idea?
- Resolution: Our ability to do what we have decided to do. This involves cultivating commitment in the long term because the pace of willingness is different from that of thought.
- Equanimity: Our ability to retain our inner center despite the tumult of our feelings. Are we overwhelmed by the emotions of life? Or do we have the capacity to use our feelings, that is perfectly alive, as a means of contemplative knowledge? True artists, for example, must feel very deeply the emotion that they describe, and despite everything, carry out each detail with talent. The artist hangs between vulnerability and self-control, suffering and action. All great leaders have discovered the secret of emphatic knowledge and equanimity.
- Positivity: Our ability to perceive, in any situation, something positive and elevated. This does not, of course, involves thinking that evil is good, but it is to practice fidelity in humanity.
- Openness: Our ability to question our thought habits. Our perception of the world is guided by our habits of thought that are very deeply ingrained. To surpass them, we must first realize that they exist and then try new ones. (Note: perhaps you recognize a characteristic feature of the “intelligent skeptic”?). These are the same phenomena of prejudice that are at work in optical illusions and in the “scientific” approach to ethnic cleansing.
Note: to me, these 5 qualities of mind are the fundamental tools of all intellectual professions. If this is your case, cultivating them is tantamount to “looking after the tools of your trade”).
Exercising these qualities offers invaluable benefits, in all areas of life. Nevertheless, beatitude is not a goal: we do not raise children for the profits that we will later enjoy. What we touch is above that, due to the fact of our interdependence with the whole of humankind. Meditative work on ourselves is an altruistic action on the world.
Chapter 4 – Breathing Light, a Yoga of the Senses
Cognitive breathing is the archetypal form of meditation adapted to contemplative research. It makes use of two basic forms of attention, according to the following diagram:
It is an alternation between the concentration of the archer and the attentive ear of the mother listening for the call of her child. This slow pulsation (to the rhythm of poetry…) is very well illustrated in the classic exercise of the “sound of the bell”. When a bell is struck, we can focus our attention on the sound which gradually diminishes. Then, when the sound has disappeared, an empty space opens in which something else “resonates”. It is from this open space that novelty can emerge.
The language of the contemplative experience
Up to this point in the book, the language used has avoided an explicit spiritual context. But the description of the experiences requires this question to be reconsidered. Many traditions have developed a full language to describe some aspects of the meditative experience in their cultural context. In addition, many contemporary practitioners have lived the experience in itself first hand. But the question remains: do the changes in the brain’s activity entirely account for meditative experiences? The question would appear to be insoluble at first glance because some states can only be strictly personal and intimate experiences. The experience of the conscience cannot be shared in an objective manner, unlike a material object. In the final analysis, the practitioner retains his or her free will, and will (or will not) be able to draw whatever will guide the reflection from the language of the spiritual traditions.
Meditation of the senses
Note: here the book gives very precise details about a series of fundamental practices.
Throughout the ages and until the twentieth century, the masters recommended meditations on color. They were all based on the same principle: put a natural element that is uniform in color (a blue sky, a green field) before your eyes and immerse yourself in it. This is “a plunge into color”, leaving the other elements to one side. Here we recognize the phase of focused attention.
Then, we leave the actual image aside and turn our open attention toward the inner resonance that the color has left. It is a residual image, an inner reality, a pure spiritual object. As comparison is a fundamental element, we can then continue the practice with other colors. Gradually, a spiritual landscape toward archetypes emerges. This kind of practice can extend to each of the senses.
Above and beyond the senses, each of the natural elements (water, earth, air) may be the subject of similar meditation, whose purpose is the emergence of the residual image, the archetype of the meditation object. Higher still, the light draws us away a little from the material world, but it is also the subject of this kind of meditative practice.
In the end, the thread of the meditations follows a gradation in a hierarchy of seven elements: earth, water, air, fire (heat), light, love, life.
From stones to stars
Our true relationships in life are never on the material side of things: when you love a child, a landscape or a piece of music, it is because you have found an internal relationship with them beyond the external aspect. The strength of meditation of the senses is to cultivate this process, to follow it and to strengthen it. Therefore, when the material experience disappears, its internal corollary is richer and more vibrant in our consciousness.
Perception and reflection are the systole and diastole of the spirit. This type of cognitive breathing takes our consciousness from the stones to the stars.
Chapter 5 – Words, Images, and Encounters
Meditating on words
Words contain the mystery; they can enchant us for years even if we do not understand what they mean. A short sentence (A. Zajonc gives the example “there is no fear in love”) formed in a way that takes us away from everyday considerations is a good support. In the same way, as in the previous examples, the practice follows a path that starts with a simple “fresh” listening to the sentence and goes on to deepen the emotions aroused. It is always and constantly possible to feel the presence of a “Higher Self” in meditative work. Therefore, we can both fully feel what fear is, while keeping a certain distance from the inner vortex. Images related to the sentence often strengthen the impression. At the end of this profound exploration of the text, once again using cognitive breathing, we can later the direction of will to open the door that leads to profound silence. Without seeking or hoping, this allows us to wait for a way that can accommodate anything.
Meditating on images
For traditional cultures, the production of an image (such as an icon, a Tibetan tank or a Navajo sand painting) was an act which required expertise, special materials, and significant effort. This is not the case in our time, which is image-laden. The choice of an image, sacred or profane, is a personal choice. The use of geometrical symbols offers the advantage of purely profane and purely spiritual objects. The author provides the example of a troubling meditation on the circle, which allows very simply to observe the movements of the mind when confronted with a “loophole”, such as that caused by the koān already mentioned.
The calm and open consciousness that we cultivate in meditation can be carried over into conversation with partners, students, colleagues or clients. The quality of the attention that we bring to it can directly influence the level of the encounter. In adopting this posture, we leave aside the combative posture and live in the thoughts of the other, with altruistic attention. This is a profoundly positive and open attitude. This profound change in the relationship is described by Martin Buber in I – You (or I – Thou) or even the one used by Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, in order to enter into contact with animals. When it happens, we live for a moment together in the world that we have created with our mutual attention.
Chapter 6 – Contemplative Cognition
Experience shows that many people have had some form of transcendent experience in their life. And yet, even if we do not ask for it, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) experiences take place. What can we do about them? How can we handle them? Whether or not we have a spiritual goal, the question of meditative experiences deserves to be examined.
Toward a phenomenology of meditative experiences.
We have all kinds of experimental and observational data at our disposal, and theories about the world. But our data and our theories are invariably based on experience. This means that we are never really free to say what is reality “in itself”, but only how it appears to us. This apparently tragic statement can be turned to our advantage.
The attitude suggested is to leave aside any notion of a “real world” behind the experience, to remain in contact with the experience itself. That way, all the phenomena of the world (sensory experiences, feelings, memories, etc.) which reach our consciousness are on the same level. The phenomena of meditation have exactly the same status as the impressions of the physical senses that we observe in the laboratory of our own mind.
Thus, what counts as a “real thing” in a phenomenological approach includes the sensory experiences as much as the mental phenomena. Moreover, even a rose is in part a mental phenomenon; otherwise, we could not recognize it as a rose.
The approach proposed here is that of “delicate empiricism” as developed by Goethe for his study of plants or colors. Thereby, “the facts themselves are the theory”. Goethe’s Scientific Consciousness, Henri Bortoft, Octagon press, 1986
When we arrange flowers in a vase and then stand back to consider the effect, what are we looking at? What are we comparing what we are seeing with? What is the nature of this “ideal”?
Our gaze is not only that of an observer, it is intelligent. My observations are full of ideas, which allow me to express the result of my past experiences in my creations. The external light of the sun that makes the tactile world accessible must meet a corresponding inner light of the mind in order to allow true cognition to occur. In the same way, if we wish to understand the experiences that arise during meditation, we must awaken and cultivate a form of intelligence which is competent in this new area.
In everyday life, being bright in one field says nothing about our skills in another: a brilliant mathematician can be incompetent at social interactions. To become intelligent at meditation, we, therefore, need to develop the corresponding intelligence.
Aspiring to inner knowledge
It is very difficult, in particular when starting out, to discover the true meaning of the inner life that meditation allows you to perceive. For this, our thinking must become free and mobile in a way that is not usual for us. Similarly, describe the experience, externalize these inner experiences, ask the way, in order to link the concept to the percept.
While meditation offers very important well-being in our modern lives (hence its recent success in the West), its primary use is to propose a means of direct experimentation that is not distorted by our mental or emotional habits. The stakes are high because, without it, half of reality is inaccessible to us.
Neglecting this form of knowledge leads to many of today’s problems: how many solutions developed with the best will in the world only lead to poor results, or are even contrary to the intended purpose?
Nobody has the intention of offering their children a mediocre education, yet many “educational” innovations and reforms are far from being up to scratch because the understanding of the developing child is too narrow and too poor. They largely neglect the psycho-spiritual nature. By only using conventional methods based on the material factors and observable behavior, we cannot notice these essential dimensions of the nature of the child.
The same observation applies at the societal level, in the approaches to scientific research. The fruits of scientific research, therefore, concern all of the fields of innovation: practical, but also creative and artistic.
The intelligence that we seek to develop is exercised outside of animate or inanimate objects. It is a thought without an object in itself. While initial meditative experiences have characteristics that derive from the senses, this should change with practice.
It is difficult to get out of our habits of mechanical thoughts and associations, those which are triggered for example as soon as the phone rings and we answer “Hello?”. There is, therefore, an important risk that this form of thought will attempt to explain the spiritual experiences, and it is not adapted for this.
The thought that we seek to develop if it does not apply to objects, is interested in relationships, in metamorphoses and in order. It is not about opposing the two modes of thought: the first is very useful in the everyday world. But in order to progress, it is essential to give our full attention to this second mode of thought, in order to be able, at a later stage, to reconnect the two methods.
Half-way to paradise
While for many, the relationship with mathematics is rather “complicated”, for others it is a privileged means of access to forms of thought that can be applied to pure relations. This is far from new: Plato said that the “gods forever geometrized”.
So, we can draw a triangle:
In reality, this drawing is not a triangle (the straight lines are not infinitely long or thin), but a symbol of the mental image of the triangle. In the triangle, particular relationships (which are not those of the square or circle) are expressed and give it its nature.
You can then play in the mind to rotate one or both sides of the triangle represented, in such a way as to obtain an infinite number of other images. The “triangle” relationship is still maintained and in this way, we move from the particular to the general by asking the question: what is the common factor between all these particular shapes?
We now touch upon the concept of the triangle, and we can note that it resembles neither a triangle nor anything: it is a pure idea. What we have performed with our mind is a “leap” from the material world to the pure world of ideas. We have come to observe the constancy of relationships through metamorphoses. It is exactly this ability that allows us to find our way in the world of meditation.
Geometry as transformation
The metamorphoses of the world around us are multiple, and simple transformations like rotation or transposition are not sufficiently wide to be aware of them. So, a leaf from a tree evolves according to a similarity (a “change of scale”), combined with other processes, but it retains certain invariants.
Projective geometry is a particularly important example of the context in which to exercise the mind to follow the transformations and observe the invariants.
(Note: The book provides very detailed examples here)
This kind of training is of great help in releasing the thought (the concepts are shifting according to the different rules of our habits) while maintaining its clarity and precision. That is what we need in meditation: flexible thinking that is still sensitive to a new and subtle order.
In a general way, we construct reality point by point, atom by atom, in the same way, that we imagine a circle as a set of points that are equidistant from a given point.
However, there is another way to think, by using “peripheral thinking”; here, a circle can be perfectly represented by plotting all of its tangents. The two methods are equally precise and rigorously mathematical.
(Note: here the author provides a basic exercise in projective geometry, the “pole-polar” transformation, illustrating the concepts of space and counter-space)
It is essential to train our ability to think in a centered AND in a peripheral manner because creativity emerges from the second place. If thinking “point by point” allows us to remain focused, peripheral thought opens the door to creative responses, to what emerges from the periphery. However, the world we live in is largely planned centrally. Much more peripheral planning would certainly be good for everyone.
Of all and of parts
This new ability to free ourselves from the “point by point” mentality finds resonances in the manner in which we approach human relations.
You have certainly noticed that when you gather all your colleagues from the office in a large room, they behave very differently from the usual “binary” relations. Similarly, the addition of one drug to a treatment which already contains several can ruin everything, because the interactions cannot reflect themselves one by one. Reality cannot be reduced to relations in pairs.
Therefore, meditation helps us cross a threshold to the field of holistic relationships, and allows us to find our way in this type of organization, in order to behave better there.
In the field of quantum physics, our habits of thinking about separate objects, each with a non-ambiguous series of attributes which define them, are invalidated. In other words, quantum physics requires holism or the definition of an “implied order”. The hologram is a good example. Instead of the traditional capture of an image, which is based on a “point by point” transformation, creating a hologram implies that the entire object is projected onto each point of the film.
That is to say that a simple point is no longer characterized by its intrinsic characteristics, but by the relationship, it has with the set to which it belongs.
So, when we write 12 or 21, these two “assemblies” of the symbols 1 and 2 have different meanings. In addition to this, the 1 and the 2 partly retain individuality (they are individualities), and partly the characteristics modified by the fact of belonging to a 12 or a 21. We could call this partial holism: the individual identity of the particles steps back and there is an “ontological emergence”, the appearance of a new entity.
In quantum mechanics, holism goes much further. In what is called “entwined states” the attributes of two particles that are put in relation become “non-local”. It is as if the individual particles completely abandon their distinctive attributes to the whole, becoming interchangeable. Only the relationship remains, a relationship of a new kind.
What is shown here is an implementation of a new way of thinking, one that allows us to find our way in the world of meditation. When we cross the threshold into the meditative world, we must find our way by seeking the invariants in metamorphosis and these invariant relationships are sometimes very subtle and not in our habits.
Chapter 7 – Contemplative Inquiry
At this stage in the book, the entire approach to contemplative inquiry has been examined, from the moral foundations to the emergence of a new way of thinking. Each step has been accompanied by exercises to develop the qualities of this new thinking.
This new intelligence is characterized by the mobility of thought, the ability to address complexity or contradiction, and the perception of conceptual holism. It is the source of creativity and originality, the well from which artists draw.
It allows you to develop a new, soft form of consciousness, with altruistic goals, and therefore to construct an epistemology of love rather than of separation.
Toward an epistemology of love
The new intelligence whose foundations we have uncovered is characterized in different ways:
- By respect for the intrinsic nature of the other. We begin by acknowledging that what is before us has an intrinsic value. This is similar to what the poet Rilke said about love, which must “respect the solitude of the other”, respect its unique identity and its potential.
- Softness toward what we wish to understand. This is the opposite of the scientific empiricism promoted by Francis Bacon, who recommended pushing nature to extreme states to extract its secrets. On the contrary, contemplative knowledge requires what Goethe called “delicate empiricism, through which the subject is so intimately invested in the object that the object itself becomes the true theory”.
- Intimacy, also referred to in the preceding quote. Where normal science creates a distance between the observer and the object of study, an epistemology based on love demands moving towards the subject of the study.
- Participation: this involves feeling in oneself the internal activity of the other (person or object), over and above simple images and external behavior. This seems surprising and yet it is very common: when you read this sentence, you think in yourself the thoughts of another in order to understand him.
For such knowledge to be possible, three conditions need to be in place inside us:
- Vulnerability: it is only when we are vulnerable that we can be what the other is and participate in its world. This is impossible if we remain set in our usual ways of seeing and knowing.
- Transformation: the living thoughts that pass through us transform us, as the bed of the river is slowly shaped by the movement of the water.
- Opening a new organ The repetition of the cycles of attention toward the object slowly shape in us “spiritual organs”; we become more and more capable of perceiving certain realities. We have mentioned that for the physical view, external physical light must encounter a “light of the spirit” adapted to the level of experience for knowledge to occur. That is why, mechanistic thinking is inadequate for understanding holistic phenomena, in the same way, that musical intelligence trained in the repertory of the 18th century must be amended in order to approach the harmony of jazz. At each level of opening the organ, a specific illumination is positioned.
Knowledge is not an object, but an event. We all know the feeling of struggling with an issue until clear understanding appears. Suddenly it’s there, we can “see”! This phenomenon is intimate and personal, and cannot be shared by a description. In order to be able to communicate it, we must find a way to lead others to the same experience, so that they can live on the same journey.
History is full of stories of long and passionate research that culminates in a single moment of clear understanding. Sometimes the journey is in the opposite direction: the illumination occurs, then it takes years of work to retrace the path. Science, when pursued ethically, is only one of many ways through which love can become knowledge.
Here is a summary of the nine characteristics of contemplative inquiry:
- Training a body
By this path, and by our insistence on our transformation and the opening of organs, what we know becomes a reflection of what we are. On this path, being, knowing and acting are invariably connected.
From the image to the knowledge
In a general way, the full meditative sequence is the following:
- Internal image
- Spiritual activity
Each time, we move to the higher level by using a sequence of cognitive breathing. Therefore, a painter begins by considering the object of his creation, and through cognitive breathing, develops the inner image inside him. This inner image itself becomes the object of the meditative attention at the higher level, and he can live his activity in meditation, consisting of making the painting appear as an image. This activity is the fruit of the being of the painting which lives inside the painter. What allows the meditative path through this sequencing of cognitive breathing, is allowing the knowledge of the being at the origin of the whole process.
Why take the trouble to go through these 4 steps? Because in order to achieve true contemplative knowledge, we must find a basis for cognition that is adapted to the beings that we are. This path is a sure way to gently disengage ourselves from the world of the senses to access deep and wise understanding.
The practice of contemplative inquiry
Despite this precise structure, the practice remains very free, and it can be adapted to virtually all possible topics. We can begin by lovingly collecting all of the observable details, through calm and clear attention. This is a stage of external phenomenology, which allows us to capture all of the visible aspects of the question that we are interested in.
Then we turn to inner phenomenology as we enter into empathy with the object of our attention. As we have cultivated our ability to not be “polluted” by our own sympathies and antipathies (Chapter three), we can accommodate the inner life of the other inside us.
From there, we can develop suitable content for our meditation, content that will be the subject of the sequence of cognitive breathing we saw previously. Where, in Chapters Four and Five, we used objects that came from nature, now it is our creation, in words, drawings or ideas, which becomes the starting point for our research.
An old scholastic distinction makes the difference between natura naturata (“natured nature”) and natura naturans (“naturing nature”). This is exactly the distinction that we have made between the finished and inert objects that surround us and the processes that underlie them and bring them into existence.
Indeed meditative inquiry allows us to understand nature in the act of “naturing”, something that our usual, more practical understanding does not allow us to do.
The languages of the first peoples testify to an approach to the world that is closer to this understanding. For example, in the Navajo language, the word for “cemetery” signifies “they lie in the soil,” including a degree of animation, a notion of process.
Becoming the other
In theatre or in a novel, the action or the dialogue reveals the life of the characters to us. Similarly, moving from the image to the activity, meditation leads us to the knowledge of the other. But beyond that, at the ultimate degree, direct, immediate knowledge of the other exists. At this level, this involves abandonment of the social self, to fully become the “silent self”. This is produced in love because a person in love loses his or her self in favor of the other. In the East, it is said to be the nature of Buddha, which is in all things. In the West, it is evocative of logos, the Word, the Christ. In this state, we know the other as we know ourselves – the “other” may be of any nature.
At the beginning of the book, solitude was mentioned as the first step. Reaching this final understanding, in the most complete solitude, the human being is simultaneously connected all of creation.
Reaping the fruits
Contemplative practice certainly changes who we are, and also the way we interact with the world. What we experience in meditation crosses over into our lives. The interactions with the other are more alive, and at the same time, we feel more secure in ourselves. In all walks of life, from scientists to artists, meditative work bears its fruit.
Many American and international institutions today incorporate, in a more or less explicit way, contemplative approaches in their work. Foundations guide their support through contemplative inquiry. The author, who is himself a researcher in quantum mechanics, uses meditative techniques on a daily basis (Note: and I, a building and human thermal energy expert, constantly use these approaches, without however admitting it to my clients very often).
Sometimes, a single moment of real presence, in solitude or through an encounter with an accomplished contemplative can change a life and have profound consequences on a project or a company. These are the priceless fruits that we can bring from our practice. Indeed, these days, the road to beatitude, in reality, passes through action in the world.
Conclusions about “Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry”:
This little-known and poorly distributed book is for me a treasure that has no equivalent that I know of.
It is true that many books today talk about meditation. Some, such as those by Matthieu Ricard, rely on a spiritual tradition that is more or less close, more or less accessible. Others, such as those by Jon Kabat-Zin or Christophe André, are clearly Western, and offer paths towards a daily practice based on “well-being” or “better living.” This one is different because it puts the meditative practice in a broad and essential perspective: offer an approach to direct knowledge of the world, with the purpose of transforming it. One could almost say that it is a political or activist book. In fact, the text is crisscrossed with references to necessary social and humanist innovations. It is not, however, because the method described here is only intended to give each person the means to fully exercise their free will. In this sense, it is a genuine guide to freedom.
The book is also unique because of the experience it offers. It is an understatement to say that it is difficult to precisely describe a meditative experience, as it is by nature strictly personal and intimate. But this book performs a great feat, in the practical exercises suggested, in very clearly describing the process. More than that, it almost allows us to observe our mind transforming in real time. It is a work of action and what the book talks about is exactly what happens: as I progressively acquire knowledge of the subject, I enter directly into resonance with it, and am immediately transformed.
I was lucky enough to translate this book into French in 2012, and therefore to read both the original version and then to “crunch” each sentence several times. I also performed the translations of the conferences that Arthur Zajonc gave in France at the time the book came out. And today, six years later, as I write this chronicle, I get to re-discover the immense richness of this book.
What is perhaps the most striking is the simplicity of the text. Apart from maybe two paragraphs (those on the subject of quantum physics, over a few pages), overall, the book a model of clarity.
This book transformed my life and even my approach to the world. I only truly realized that as I wrote this chronicle. The method of knowledge proposed is a very rich complement to the rigor of scientific knowledge. It allows the soul to be added to theoretical knowledge. Finally, I find reassuring the long list of examples of institutions or initiatives (although mostly in the U.S.) who today rely on the contemplative approach. Only the European experiences are missing…
I am particularly happy to write this column on Olivier Roland’s site, as he often talks about “intelligent skeptics” Arthur Zajonc’s book allows this notion to be extended the whole of reality, including spiritual realities, and it offers all the keys to anyone who wants to tackle contemplative knowledge.
It is the first book that I recommend systematically to anyone who asks me about meditation, but also about the systemic approaches or the “alternative” consequences of my scientific work.
To conclude, I would like to quote a few words from Michel Bitbol’s preface, summarised on the back cover:
Strengths of Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry:
- Solidly constructed, very clear text
- A unique perspective on the meditative approach as a tool of scientific knowledge and social transformation
- Very good balance between the explanatory passages and practical examples.
- A book that delivers what it promises: readers can almost feel their minds transforming as they read.
Weaknesses of Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry:
- The main one is that the book is out of print with its French publisher and poorly distributed, making it difficult to find (the American edition remains available, fortunately!).
- The preface is certainly interesting, but its erudition is out of kilter with the luminous clarity of the text.
Have you read Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry? How do you rate it?
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