“[In the highest degree of contemplation] the Soul not only becomes happy by the gift of philosophy, but since, so to speak, it becomes God, it becomes happiness itself.” – Marsilio Ficino
Beyond common prayer and incidental spiritual experience is the highest level of relationship to God or ultimate reality through meditation and contemplation. These forms of mystical undertaking are one of the reasons some believe in God, but are also methods proposed by great spiritualists to connect with the divine.
Meditation is the term used in Eastern philosophy for the process of “concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power… training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.” Therein we discover that we are not the body or the mind, and find through a “transcendental mode of knowing.” that we are a consciousness with an unbounded connection to the universe.1 For Hindus and Buddhists, the goal is enlightenment and Moksha or release from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). However this form of meditation is not aimed specifically at interacting with God.
For Christians and other religions, meditation can progress to contemplation. Thomas Merton, a twentieth century Trappist monk, defines it as “the union of our mind and will with God in an act of pure love that brings us into obscure contact with Him as He really is.”2 It is “an awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.”3
Preliminary steps according to Merton are self-discipline and asceticism, detachment from exterior matters and goods, escape from the ‘false self,’ humility, and selfless love for others. The process is one of multiple steps including solitude, silence, emptying of the mind, and prayer for your own discovery. There is a darkness, unknowing, or wilderness before the light of God’s infusion. A spiritual guide may help one avoid the many pitfalls and confusion that results during the ascent.
Paul Tillich is perhaps less mystical when he refers to “contemplating the mystery of the divine ground, considering the infinity of the divine life, intuiting the marvel of the divine creativity, adoring the inexhaustible meaning of the divine self-manifestation – all these experiences are related to God without involving an explicit ego-thou relation.”4
You may wonder whether a philosophy site should discuss a specific religious act like contemplation of the divine which defies scientific or philosophical validation. My justification is the vital place of meditation and contemplation in the history of philosophy. Virtually every Eastern tradition identifies meditation as the means to peace, enlightenment or nirvana. The contemplative life is Aristotle’s ideal of eudaimonia, that is, human flourishing. Pythagoras, Plotinus, Spinoza, and other Western philosophers seem to practice a form of meditation, and the great works of Marcus Aurelius and Descartes are known as Meditations. Christian philosophers like St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and Merton, and Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, experienced an indescribable union with the divine. Sufis, such as Mawlana Jalal-al Din Rumi, also describe such a union as breathtaking and life-changing. This supreme of human experiences, if real, must be a consideration in any program of a meaningful life, at least for those who believe in God.
1Easwaran, Eknath, Meditation.Nilgiri Press, 1991. ISBN 0-915132-66-4, pgs. 8-28.
2Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8112-1724-8, pg. 214.
3Ibid. pg. 4.
4Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol 1 pg. 289.