biggles(tm) the comfy chair

 
Elsewhere I summarise modern research on the brain that tends to suggest that "the experience" is much the same even if the techniques vary. Here, I'd like to point out that some of the techniques don't vary too much, either. Let's look at some descriptions of meditation, starting in 1936.

Colonel Charles Seymour is one of my heroes. He was a ceremonial magician, a member of Dion Fortune's 3QT group, working with Christine Hartley as his priestess and seer. Many of the group's magical diaries have been published and even a cursory glance will show how gifted they were. Seymour provided much of the scholarship that backed up the group's work and, although the writing style is dated, his introduction to meditation remains one of the best ever written.

The Society of Inner Light has re-published Seymour's lectures as "The Forgotten Mage" [Thoth, 1-870450-39-6], which is well worth the cover price, regardless of your religious or other viewpoints. The publishers prefer that reviewers don't reproduce even short sections of the text, so I'll summarise Seymour's description my aim is to point out similarities of techniques, rather than to steal his thunder, and the book contains many more gems.

The colonel starts by describing meditation as both an art and a science with its own definite laws. He stresses that as such, you have to tackle it in the same way as music or painting. He rightly points out, that it demands long practice and honest, steady, daily work. There are no short cuts: concentration exercises demand great care, a high degree of self-observation and total self-honesty. This last, says Seymour, is the first test a beginning practitioner must pass certainly there's a very high drop-out rate in beginning students.

Seymour suggests being seated in "your most comfortable armchair" with a good body posture. In this space, one should spend ten minutes each day "brooding" on one of the symbols given to you. Start by reading all about the symbol, to fix it in your consciousness. What does Seymour mean by "brooding"? He means concentrating in such a way that the symbol becomes the brain's only focus. Sadly, this is more difficult than it appears, but if it's done right, the technique simply works. In fact, it may work astonishingly well in the very early days, almost by accident, so that it takes a long time to regain the effects on a regular basis. Although the colonel doesn't say so, the resulting disappointment is also a factor in the high drop-out rate.

Meditation is all about controlling the mind. In order to do this, you need to learn to focus utterly. The armchair provides a "special" space that aids this focus. It helps if you time it so that you won't fall asleep - there's no danger (that's not what Seymour means by requiring "care", but it's a bit of a waste of the experience. So stop when you feel tired; there's always tomorrow. At the end of the meditation, simply imagine it as a canvas that can be "rolled up" until the next session mentally put it away and then write up your notes.

Seymour died suddenly on Midsummer's day 1943, but I like to think he would have been amused by the parallel between the Monty Python quotation from their "Spanish Inquisition" sketch and his own suggestion of a comfortable armchair.

The Zen Buddhist meditation technique studied by Newburg and d'Aquili is slightly different from Seymour's technique, but only in that it uses a different focus. After learning the importance of good posture students are normally taught a basic technique something like the following:

Centring Prayer, the second mechanism studied by Newburg, draws on early Christian contemplative techniques such as the Lecto Divina and is probably similar to the Celtic Christian "dercad". The method (calling it a "technique" is frowned on by adherents) is simple:

The recommended method is to pray for two twenty-minute periods every day, early morning and early evening. As with both Seymour's description and Buddhist meditation, the emphasis is on regular practice as the key, and practitioners point out that if applied properly the method will work for anyone, passing beyond conversation with God, into communion. If you read my summary of Jeffrey Saver's work on the limbic system within the brain, the significance of the period of allowing the consciousness to settle, and of remaining in silence at the end, should be obvious: these periods mark the transition between the mundane word and the ritual state.

Trappist monks an abbey in Massachusetts turned Centring Prayer into a simple method in the 1970's, although some proponents claim a much more direct descent from ancient practices. This may be because the technique is controversial. It has occasionally been called heresy (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith comes close in their letter "Some Aspects of Christian Meditation" of 1989). Direct descent from canonical sources would make this charge less sustainable.

Three methods of meditation from different schools, which appear similar and to produce the same changes in brain activity. Direct or convergent evolution? I know which my money's on, but in the end does it really matter? What matters is that variations on the technique don't appear to affect the end result, so it should be possible to find a method that suits you well enough for you to maintain the regular practice, in which case it should work.


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