We continue with Evelyn Underhill’s introduction to mysticism, looking at how the practical person prepares to be united with Reality.
The practical man will naturally ask: How shall I detach myself from the artificial world to which I am accustomed? Where is the brake that shall stop the wheel of my image-making mind? I answer: You are going to do it by an educative process; a drill, of which the first stages will, indeed, be hard enough. It will involve the development and the training of a layer of your consciousness which has lain fallow in the past; the acquirement of a method you have never used before.
The education of the mystical sense begins in self-simplification. That simplifying act, which is the preliminary of all mystical experience, is a gathering of the scattered bits of personality into the one which is really you–into the “unity of your spirit,” as the mystics say. The great forces of love, beauty, wonder, grief, may do this for you now and again, turning you from the tidy world of image to the ineffable world of fact. But they are fleeting and ungovernable experiences. Don’t allow your participation in Reality to depend wholly on these incalculable visitations: on the sudden wind and rain that wash your windows, and let in the vision of the landscape at your gates. You can, if you like, keep those windows clear. You can, if you choose to turn your attention that way, learn to look out of them. The mystics call this the purification of the senses.
What is it that smears the windows of the senses? Thought, convention, self-interest. We throw a mist of thought between ourselves and the external world: and through this we discern, as in a glass darkly, that which we have arranged to see. Religion, indigestion, priggishness, or discontent may drape the panes. The prismatic colours of a fashionable school of art may stain them. Inevitably, too, we see the narrow world our windows show us, not “in itself,” but in relation to our own needs, moods, and preferences.
To “purify” the senses is to release them, so far as human beings may, from the tyranny of egocentric judgments; to make of them the organs of direct perception. This means that we must crush our deep-seated passion for classification and correspondences; ignore the instinctive, selfish question, “What does it mean to me?”
When the masters of the spiritual life speak of purity, they have in their minds no thin, abstract notion of a rule of conduct stripped of all colour and compounded chiefly of refusals, such as a more modern, more arid asceticism set up. Their purity is an affirmative state; something strong, clean, and crystalline, capable of a wholeness of adjustment to the wholeness of a God-inhabited world. The pure soul is like a lens from which all irrelevancies and excrescences, all the beams and motes of egotism and prejudice, have been removed.
This disciplining and simplifying of the attention is the process the mystics call Recollection: the first stage in the training of the contemplative consciousness. Recollection is simply the subjection of the attention to the control of the will, and it begins in the deliberate and regular practice of meditation (a perfectly natural form of mental exercise, though at first a hard one). One of the best definitions has described that art as a “loving sight,” a “peering into heaven with the ghostly eye.” But the self who is yet at this early stage of the pathway to Reality is not asked to look at anything new, to peer into the deeps of things: only to gaze with a new and cleansed vision on the ordinary labels, the “objects” and ideas, amongst which it has always dwelt.
Take, then, an idea, an object, from amongst the common stock, and hold it before your mind. The choice made, it must be held and defended during the time of meditation against all invasions from without, however insidious their encroachments, however “spiritual” their disguise. It must be brooded upon, gazed at, seized again and again, as distractions seem to snatch it from your grasp. A restless boredom, a dreary conviction of your own incapacity, will presently attack you. This, too, must be resisted at sword-point. The first quarter of an hour thus spent in attempted meditation will be, indeed, a time of warfare; which should at least convince you how unruly, how ill-educated is your attention.
But soon you will find that you have indeed–though how you know not–entered upon a fresh plane of perception, altered your relation with things. First, the subject of your meditation begins, as you surrender to its influence, to exhibit unsuspected meaning, beauty, power. A perpetual growth of significance keeps pace with the increase of attention which you bring to bear on it. Moreover, as your meditation becomes deeper it will defend you from the perpetual assaults of the outer world. You will hear the busy hum of that world as a distant exterior melody, and know yourself to be in some sort withdrawn from it. You have set a ring of silence between you and it; and behold! within that silence you are free. Gradually, you will come to be aware of an entity, a You, who can thus hold at arm’s length, be aware of, look at, an idea–a universe–other than itself.
Now turn this new purified and universalised gaze back upon yourself. Observe your own being in a fresh relation with things, and surrender yourself willingly to the moods of astonishment, humility, joy–perhaps of deep shame or sudden love–which invade your heart as you look. So doing patiently, day after day, constantly recapturing the vagrant attention, ever renewing the struggle for simplicity of sight, you will at last discover that there is something within you–something behind the fractious, conflicting life of desire–which you can recollect, gather up, make effective for new life. You will, in fact, know your own soul for the first time: and learn that there is a sense in which this real You is distinct from, an alien within, the world in which you find yourself, as an actor has another life when he is not on the stage. When you do not merely believe this but know it; when you have achieved this power of withdrawing yourself, of making this first crude distinction between appearance and reality, the initial stage of the contemplative life has been won.