By Roberto Assagioli, undated, paper from Psychosynthesis International, USA.
As in the case of many other words used in psychology (for example, “mind”, “personality”, “soul”), different meanings are ascribed to the word “meditation”. In its more restricted sense, it can be regarded as synonymous with disciplined thought or reflection on an idea. More broadly, it embraces other kinds of inner action, for which disciplined thought is a prerequisite. In psychosynthesis, meditation is considered and practiced in this wider connotation. We shall thus indicate with appropriate terminology, as the need arises, the types of meditation we wish to discuss.
The three principal types are: reflective meditation, receptive meditation, creative meditation.
Meditation, to be effective, needs adequate preparation. It is a matter of passing from normal life with its outward orientation, in which interest and attention are monopolized by our concerns, plans, and activities, to the “inner action” of meditation. This preparation is triple: physical, emotional, and mental.
- Physical relaxation—the most thorough elimination possible of all muscular and nervous tension.
- Emotional composure—the endeavor to assume a state of tranquility.
- Mental recollection—the direction of the mind’s interest and attention inward.
I. Reflective Meditation
Its simplest definition is to think; an accurate but limited definition, since clear ideas on the function of thinking are not common property. It has been stated that “the mind thinks in us,” rather than it being we who formulate thoughts.
Indeed, the working of our minds normally proceeds spontaneously under the action of stimuli and interests of various kinds, and in a somewhat disorganized way. The mind operates independently of the will, and often in opposition to it. This lack of mastery over the mind has been well described by Swami Vivekananda:
“How hard it is to control the mind. Well has it been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough, someone made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion he jumps about for the whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery, a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey; incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy of the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!”
The first lesson, then, is to sit for some time and let the mind run on. The mind is bubbling up all the time. It is like that monkey jumping about. Let the monkey jump as much as he can; you simply wait and watch. Knowledge is power, says the proverb, and that is true. Until you know what the mind is doing you cannot control it. Give it the rein; many hideous thoughts may come into it; you may be astonished that it was possible for you to think such thoughts. But you will find that each day the mind’s vagaries are becoming less and less violent, that each day it is becoming calmer. In the first few months you will find that the mind will have a great many thoughts, later you will find that they have somewhat decreased, and in a few more months they will be fewer and fewer, until at last the mind will be under perfect control, but we must patiently practice every day.
Much of our ordinary mental activity, then, does not merit the term “thought”. It is only when a dominating interest backed by a firm and decided will is able to hold the mind concentrated on an idea or task that it really “thinks” and we can say that it reflects. it meditates. Thus there are those who meditate without calling their mental activity that; for example, the scientist seeking the solution to a problem; the businessman working out a program for the conduct of his affairs. This is a regulated and organized use of the thinking function. In this connection we should recognize a somewhat humiliating truth: these people frequently think and meditate much more efficiently than those who try to do so for psychological or spiritual purposes.
If we want to learn to meditate, we must realize that the mind is in reality an “instrument”, an inner tool from which we must disidentify ourselves if we are to make use of it at will. While we are wholly identified with the mind, we cannot control it. A certain “psychological distance”, a certain detachment from it, is needed.
The practice of concentration is the first step; the next is to direct the activity of the mind along a line we have determined, so that it accomplishes the task we have assigned to it. In this sense to “think” means to reflect on and deeply explore a subject, examining all its implications, ramifications, and meanings. An attempt on our part to do this will quickly reveal how superficial and inadequate is our normal way of “thinking”. We are accustomed to reach hurried conclusions and arbitrary generalizations, to consider only one aspect of the subject, and to see or accentuate only what corresponds to our preconceptions or preferences.
The first requisite for developing the art of thinking is to watch carefully the process of thinking itself and be instantly aware when a deviation starts. The second involves persistence, tenacity in probing deeply into the subject. Here a curious phenomenon occurs; a few minutes of reflection seem to have exhausted the possibilities of the subject; nothing further remains to be said about it. But persistence in reflection at this point will lead to the discovery of other, unsuspected aspects, revealing a wealth of development to which we can ascribe no limits.
An example will serve to make this clear. Let us take as a theme for meditation the sentence, “I seek to love, not hate.” At first sight this appears simple and evident. indeed banal, and makes one think, “Naturally, being a good person, with good intentions, I try to love and not hate; it’s so obvious that I can’t find anything else to add.” But if we ask ourselves —and attempt to answer —the following questions, we shall realize that the matter is not so simple. “What does love really mean? —What is love? — How many and what kinds of love are there? — In what ways am I capable of loving? —How do I try to love? —Whom do I love and whom do I succeed in loving? —Have I always succeeded in loving as I would have wished? — If not, why? — What have been and are the obstacles and how can I eliminate them? —What portion of my love depends on the people to whom it is directed and what on my own nature?”
Then we can examine the word “hate”. and come up with such questions as: “Behind what camouflage can it hide? —Am I free from every type of hate? Do I feel hate toward those who injure me? —Toward those hostile to me? Are such feelings fair? —If not, how can they be corrected? — What attitude should be adopted toward evil in general? —What is the meaning of the saying, ‘An enemy is as useful as a Buddha?'”
It is obvious that we cannot examine all these queries in one meditation. They offer possibilities for reflection for an extended series of meditations. Thus we discover what a wealth of possible elaboration, how much meaning, is concealed in such a seemingly simple statement.
What are the aims of meditation? We must be clear about them, for they determine the theme to be chosen and the procedure to be adopted. One of the objects of reflective meditation is conceptual, that is, to have a clear idea about the given subject or problem. Clarity of concept is much rarer than is supposed, and the first step here also is to become aware that our ideas are not clear. Another object, more important still, is to acquire knowledge about ourselves (we will speak of this later).
Some subjects for meditation are:
- The various psychological and spiritual qualities we desire to awaken or strengthen in ourselves: courage, faith, serenity, joy, will, etc.
- Symbols. (See the extensive discussion of symbols and their uses in the book Psychosynthesis.)
- A sentence expressing a thought —this has been termed a “seed-thought” of which there are two principal categories:
- Those that seem simple and obvious, like the one we have commented on (“I seek to love. . .”).
- Those that, on the contrary, are formulated in such a paradoxical way as to be perplexing at first. Their form is built on apparent contradictions, which can be reconciled only by finding a synthesis at a higher and more comprehensive level. The koans of Zen Buddhism are extreme types of these paradoxical seed-thoughts. Here are some instances of some paradoxes, which could be called psychospiritual quizzes: “To act with interest and disinterest” —”To suffer with joy” (which does not mean to enjoy suffering!) —”To make haste slowly” —”To live in the eternal and the moment” —”To see action in inaction and inaction in action” (the theme of one of the books of the Bhagavad Gita).
- The most important, indeed, the indispensable, subject for meditation in achieving personal psychosynthesis is reflective meditation on one’s self. By means of it one is able to distinguish between pure self-consciousness or awareness of the Self and the psychological elements or parts of one’s personality at various levels. This distinction has already been spoken of, but your attention is recalled to it because it is a fundamental requisite for acquiring consciousness of the Self.
This awareness, this possibility of observing one’s own personality “from above” and “from a distance interiorly”, should not be confused with egocentricity and preoccupation with self. These in reality reflect just the opposite, being identification with the personality elements and concern with personal defects and the opinions and judgments of others about ourselves, which we often arouse an acute sense of distress.
Finally, reflective meditation on ourselves is not to be considered simply a passive process of observation, like making an inventory of facts. It aims at understanding, interpretation, and evaluation of what we discover in ourselves.
II. Receptive Meditation
A clear understanding of the difference between reflective and receptive meditation can be more easily gained by regarding the mind as an “inner eye”. In reflective meditation, the mind’s eye is directed, so to speak, horizontally. It observes the object, the theme of the meditation, the seed-thought, or the various aspects of the personality. In receptive meditation, on the other hand, the mind’s eye is turned upwards, seeking to discover what is to be discerned at a higher level than that of the ordinary consciousness and of the mind itself.
The first state is silence. The reception from the superconscious of an intuition, an inspiration, a message, or a stimulus to action requires the elimination of what might impede its descent into the sphere of consciousness. This is why silence is necessary. In this connection, a person accustomed to meditating has reported the following experience:
I was immersed in a profound meditation and knew that I had reached a limpid, radiant state, when this thought crossed my mind: “I know I am at this level, and yet I am deaf and blind and can hear and see nothing.” A moment passed and then this humorous reply came: “If you were silent as well, you would be able to see and hear.”
To keep and maintain inner silence entails continuous effort; the mind is not accustomed to this discipline; it kicks against the pricks and tries to escape.
There are various ways of obtaining mastery over the mind. The first, indicated by Vivekananda, consists in maintaining the steady, patient attitude of the observer for a certain time, until the mind tires of its restless activity. This can be practiced, patiently, for a short period each day. Another method consists in persistently repeating a word or phrase, murmuring the words aloud. A third way is to evoke a mental picture. The most effective words and pictures are those that induce a state of calm, peace, and silence. An appropriate phrase is one taken from a hymn of the Greek Mysteries: “Be silent, 0 strings, that a new melody may flow in me.” Effective pictures include a tranquil lake which mirrors the blue of the sky; a majestic mountaintop; and especially, the starry sky in the silence of the night.
In other cases the opposite difficulty arises: a sense of heaviness or somnolence comes on. This is to be strenuously resisted, since it may lead to a state of passivity in which elements erupt from the unconscious, particularly from the lower and collective unconscious, or from extraneous psychic energies. As soon as one is aware of this happening, the condition must be interrupted and the meditation suspended, at least for a while. In general, receptive meditation presents greater difficulties than reflective meditation, and its practice must be vigilantly conducted if damaging effects are to be avoided.
How and in what form do the “messages” come, that is, the material we “receive”? The most common way is by vision or illumination. As has been said, the mind is symbolically an “inner eye”, and therefore it can “see” in the sense of understand. It can become aware of the meaning of facts and events, “see” the solution of a problem and have a “luminous” idea.
Intuition is a higher form of vision. Etymologically, it is related to vision and means to “see within” (in-tueri). At its highest it can be equated with a direct supra-rational comprehension of the nature of reality, of its essence. It thus differs from what is commonly called “intuition” (hunch), which should, with greater accuracy, be termed “psychic impression” about people and events, or “presentiment”.
The inner action of one who is endeavoring to perceive inner reality is called “contemplation” or the “contemplative state”. The highest form of inner vision is illumination, which can be defined as revelation of the divinity inherent in all things, in nature and in living beings.
A second effect of receptive meditation may be “inner hearing”; but here also it is necessary to discriminate carefully between the psychic perception of voices and sounds and true transpersonal hearing. The information coming from the higher levels is for the most part impersonal in character; the messages are brief, but pregnant with meaning. They often have a symbolic quality, even when they appear to carry a concrete meaning. A well-known example is the message received by Saint Francis: “Go and restore the Church.” Initially he interpreted this as an injunction to rebuild a little ruined church. Later he understood that he had been asked something very different, to restore the Church itself, which was in decline in his time. Many artistic, literary, and musical impressions belong in this category of inner hearing.
Sometimes a veritable dialogue occurs between the personal “I” and the Self. The mind, recollected in meditation, refers questions and receives inner replies, rapid and clear. When attempting such a dialogue, however, much prudence and discrimination must be exercised. Not infrequently “voices” are experienced and “messages” are received which come from or are transmitted by the personal or collective unconscious, and whose contents do not tally with truth. They can deceive and are apt to dominate and obsess.
A third form of receptivity may be termed “contact”, since it has a certain resemblance to the sense of touch or “feeling by contact”. It conveys a meaning similar to the content of the phrases “to establish contact with somebody,” “to be en rapport with someone.” It is an inner contact, one with the Self. It indicates a relationship, liaison, or alignment with the Self which renders us receptive to its quality, enabling us to identify or unify ourselves consciously, even if only for a moment, with that spiritual reality. This inner nearness, this “touch” of the Self, harmonizes, vivifies, and recharges us with energy.
The fourth way of receiving an impression from the higher Self takes the form of a stimulus to action: our awareness of it arouses in us the urge to do a given thing, embark upon a particular activity, or assume certain duties and tasks.
The reception is followed by the stage of registration; that is, a phase in which a clear awareness of what has been received is reached and that awareness is maintained. It is advisable to record immediately in writing what has been perceived. Impressions of high origin are often vivid and clear at the moment, but are apt to vanish rapidly from the field of consciousness and if not caught and recorded immediately, are often lost. Moreover, the mere fact of fixing them in written terms contributes to a better understanding of them; even more, the impression sometimes develops while we write, so that, in a certain sense, we continue to “receive”.
Another interesting kind of receptivity is delayed reception. It frequently happens that during receptive meditation nothing seems to occur and we remain in a state of “darkness”. Nothing new appears on the surface of consciousness except a general sense of calm and repose. But this does not necessarily mean that the meditation has been fruitless. Often, during the day or the following days, an impression or inspiration presents itself unexpectedly. It can come at any moment while one is engaged in some completely different activity, or in moments of repose, or on awaking in the morning. Sometimes one can trace the relationship between the apparently unsuccessful meditation and the subsequent inspiration. Therefore, after the close of a meditation we should maintain an inner attitude of watchful waiting, definable as “the meditative attitude”, which, when developed by exercise, can be persisted in more or less throughout the day. We can thus train ourselves to hold a state of double awareness; this implies the ability to concentrate normally on our outer activities and keep a part of the attention directed toward the inner world.
I would offer, also these technical suggestions on meditation:
Cease meditating for a time whenever overstimulation or its symptoms occur: nervous tension, emotional excitement, feverish activity. The length of time to be spent on meditation varies, but to begin with, it should not exceed ten or fifteen minutes; that is quite long enough. The period during which one subject should be used as the theme also varies, but it should not be less than a week, and after some practice one often finds a month too short. Some subjects appear to be virtually inexhaustible! A good method is to meditate on a series of themes in rotation, one theme to be used each week until the series is gone through again. Finally, there is one way of practicing receptive meditation that offers many advantages. Group meditation helps concentration (with few exceptions), confers a mutual integration and protection, and, moreover, makes possible a reciprocal verification and sharing of each member’s results.
III. Creative Meditation
Meditation can be creative because it is “inner action”. A contrast is sometimes made between meditation and action, but this is erroneous. The mastery and application of psychological and spiritual energies are actions, for they require will, training, and the employment of appropriate techniques; and above all because they are effective —they produce results.
There are various purposes for which we can use creative meditation. The first and most important is self-creation. By means of meditation we can modify, transform, and regenerate our personality. One effective way of doing this is the “ideal model” exercise (see Psychosynthesis). It may be regarded as a “model” of creative meditation.
We are using the creative power of thought and all other psychological forces continuously, spontaneously, and, I would say, inevitably. But usually we do so without being aware of it, haphazardly, and thus with little constructive effect or at worst with definite, injury to ourselves and others.
A beneficial application demands above all that we ascertain the motives that animate us, and that we accord passage only to the good ones, that is, those which are the expression of the “will-to-good”. It is then necessary to determine our objectives precisely. In the present period of reconstruction new “forms” are being built in every sphere of life, and we can cooperate by assisting in the creation and manifestation of the ideas that inform, animate, and mold these new forms.
The various stages of creative meditation are:
- Clear conception and precise formulation of the idea;
- Use of the imagination, i.e., “clothing” of the idea in pictures and “suggestive” symbols;
- Vivifying the idea with warmth of feeling and the propulsive force of desire.
Meditation, as we have seen, constitutes a bridging process, a mediatory mean by which we can build a usable path to the transpersonal dimension — the world of meaning, the realm of pure ideas. Insights that flow through this path permeate and vivify the whole of our being — and as the process continues, we can become more and more in harmony with others, with ourselves, and with all that is around us.
 A word of warning is in order concerning meditation on negative subjects. A fundamental aspect of meditation consists in intensely focusing our attention on the subject chosen for meditation. This energizes and magnifies it, because of the “feeding power of attention” (see Roberto Assagioli, The Act of Will. Viking Press. New York, 1973, Chapter 8, “Practical Applications of the Skillful Will: Psychological Breathing and Feeding”, page 69). So direct meditation on a negative subject must definitely be avoided. However, meditation on a negative aspect can be safe and useful provided it is done in a positive way, that is for the purpose of, and with our interest resolutely focused on, improving the condition, or reducing or neutralizing that which is negative. The approach to “hate”, described above, is an example of this positive approach.
But such meditation is a relatively advanced undertaking. It is best to attempt it after having developed considerable proficiency and control, and only when a definite and specific need arises.
 Another word of caution is needed here. Meditation on ourselves can at times cause the emergence in consciousness of disturbing personality elements, or the increasing presence of negative emotions. If this occurs, it is because the meditation was done incorrectly, that is, not from a sufficiently objective, disidentified point. But maintaining such a poised point in consciousness is particularly hard when meditating on ourselves, and at first may be too difficult or even impossible for some of us, such as the more introspective or imaginative types. When this is the case it is advisable to postpone meditating on ourselves, and for a time to choose more impersonal tonics while also putting much emphasis on the practice of disidentification.