Yoga and Lent VII: The Contemplative Gaze

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

This article originally appeared in America: The National Catholic Review on Mar 9, 2013--during the interim between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. We reprint it here with permission from the author.
Photo Credit: 
"Palm Point," 2015, Yahweh Nature, Creative Commons License.


Cambridge, MA. Last week and in the week before, I introduced the first two segments of the “eight limbs” (astanga) of yoga, such as emphasize respectively moral and bodily discipline. Now I take up the sixth and seventh of these limbs, those dealing most directly with meditation: holding (dharana) and meditation (dhyana):

          The holding is the tying of the mind to a place.

          Extending this single thread of attention is meditation. (Yoga Sutras III.1-2)

The images in these verses are rather simple: as if with a thread, the mind is tied to some particular place; as if by a rolling out of that thread, it stays there, over a longer time, possibly indefinitely. The idea – to put it very simply – is that the detached and free mind, calmed by moral practice and rhythmic, mindful breathing, can simply “hold” itself in some given place, for a long time. This turn to meditation — perhaps contemplation is the better term — follows upon the entirety of the second book of the Sutras, such as I have covered in past weeks: the philosophical reflection on action and its implications, the problem of the mind’s entanglement in things, the moral foundations of indifference and freedom, and the triple practices of sitting, breathing, and letting go which we considered last time. It is only with all of that in place that Patanjali turns to the interior holding of the mind in some place (what is in that place matters less) and resting in that holding for a long time. For how long? The great commentator Vijnana Bhiksu indicates that the holding takes up the time of twelve practices of mindful breathing (inhalation, holding, exhalation), and that one meditation is comprised of twelve instances of holding.

We cannot fail to note that here too Patanjali leaves it up to the person meditating to decide on what she or he should hold the mind. He does not say, but the first commentator, Vyasa, suggests that it is best to stay local: the navel, the tip of the tongue or of the nose, the lotus in the heart, or the light shimmering in the center of the brain. Patanjali does not insist that meditation be theistic, or devotional; neither does he say a word against this possibility. His insistence, though, is that whatever the focus, it come after a mindfulness that is first of all moral and bodily. The place where one holds one's attention could therefore be entirely neutral with respect to our relationship to God, or Christ; or it could be a simple, long gaze upon what is local for the Christian in Lent, in Holy Week, the Christ with whom we sit at Table, or with whom we pray in the Garden, or at whose Cross we stand.

None of us reads or writes neutrally, and it should not be surprising to anyone that my reading of Patanjali – one of the very many available, many of which are more expert than mine, here – is deeply influenced by the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises are not the same as yoga, of course, but the comparisons can be endless, and not merely of notional value. Attention to yoga — in the end, as holding, meditating, as discussed here — can help us to open up the contemplative depths of the Exercises.

Ignatius the yogi: here I must defer to the experts on Ignatian spirituality, but I have found most helpful in this regard the insights of W. H. Longridge, a monk in the Anglican Society of S. John the Evangelist, in his book, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, translated from the Spanish with a commentary and a translation of the Directorium in Exercitia. (A R Mowbray, 1919; a volume hard to find, though this morning I did detect three copies available at In an “additional note” near the end of the volume “on ‘contemplation’ as used in the Exercises, and its relation to contemplation as understood in mystical theology,” Longridge admits that the Exercises may seem rather busy, active, mental, compared with the contemplative goal of “a simple regard, accompanied by love,” a long, sustained, loving glance at that which one loves. But in an analysis too rich to summarize here, Longridge shows how the Exercises, as its traditional readers understood, eventuate in simpler and simpler affective, quiet attention. He quotes Francisco Suarez, the great seventeenth century Jesuit writer, on the movement of the Exercises, from the disciplined activities Ignatius prescribes in detail, to the awakening of the “spiritual senses,” “applied in such a way that the mind by means of them gazes upon some object with admiration and love, or hears words so as to be deeply moved by their meaning, or inhales the fragrance of the virtues or gifts of some soul, and so with the other senses.” (quoted in Longridge, pp. 258-259) For Suarez, the higher states of contemplation are barely mentioned by Ignatius, for the simple reason that while the beginnings of prayer can be mapped in many words, "the end of it lies in the Spirit;” accordingly, "Ignatius says little about the actual union of the soul with God, and the act of simple contemplation in which it is realized.” (p. 262)

Patanjali too says little, but it all counts, for us as well. When Patanjali writes of “holding” and “meditating,” he turns out to be offering us a gift, first regarding the practice – we learn to be moral, detached, to sit, breath, let go, attend, hold our gaze, just there – and then regarding the inner states of contemplation to which we aspire as Christians, including those of us versed in the Exercises. We are far here, I think, from extrinsic worries about pluralism or diversity, from fears about syncretism, and even from the well-intentioned efforts to put together dialogues among people of different faiths. This simpler, deeper meeting in contemplative practices — and yoga is just an example — has to do with the inner depths of Christian faith; there too, we may pray better if we humbly learn from those who practice yoga. Other dialogues, and then too theologies of religions, etc., can come from here, after this.

One blog to go, and if all goes well, I will post it on Holy Saturday. There I will consider the end point of the yogic process, “indrawal” (samadhi; enstasy): “When (that meditative mind) shines forth simply as the object, as it were empty of its own-form, that is indrawal.” (III.3). And to predict one of the more interesting points, just at Holy Saturday: this “samadhi,” the indrawn state that is motionless but now fully awake, is also the word used for the tomb of a yogi, who even in death is fully alive. (What better day for that thought than Holy Saturday?)