Contemplatives in Conversation: Images in Contemplative Practice

Images in contemplative practice turn on a seeming contradiction: they can serve as guides on the mystical path but can easily become obstacles as well. On October 10th, 2021, I met with Don Salmon on Zoom, as the two of us shared our experiences and ideas about the promises and pitfalls of using images to deepen our connection to God. This piece, which is based on our conversation, explores the contradictions inherent in our use of images for spiritual guidance, along with questions related to the intersection of art and theology. We discuss whether abstract images or images of nature have the same power to inspire contemplation through devotion and love as sacred images of specific mystics, yogis, sages, and saints. Whether there is a difference in the state of consciousness achieved through religious tradition as compared to contemporary methods of spiritual practice that aren’t necessarily associated with a tradition, and the role of imagery in devotional practices vs non-devotional practices. We explore the relative value of image-based vs. non-image-based meditation, and the benefits of using digital images for contemplation. We also discuss the nature of apophatic and cataphatic methods and how different traditions approach images as vehicles for spiritual enlightenment.

Mosaic ceiling of the Florence Baptistry, 1225-1330

Images in contemplative practice turn on a seeming contradiction: they can serve as guides on the mystical path but can easily become obstacles as well. On October 10th, 2021, I met with Don Salmon on Zoom, as the two of us shared our experiences and ideas about the promises and pitfalls of using images to deepen our connection to God.

After many years of study and practice in Eastern traditions, I found my way back to Christianity with my discovery of the mystical tradition. Through writing I bring together my passion for art history with my ongoing study of the great religious traditions of both East and West. My work is committed to the idea that the study of images in both popular culture and art history through a contemplative lens provides support for those on the spiritual path.

Dr. Salmon worked as a professional pianist-composer in the 1970s and 80s in New York City, performing with dancers, actors, and fellow musicians, as well as composing for theater, dance, and movies. He worked as a clinical psychologist for over 25 years, conducting research on lucid dreams and the use of mindfulness in the treatment of pain.  Over the course of several decades, he has studied and practiced meditative and contemplative methods from various traditions and has co-authored a book on the yoga psychology of Sri Aurobindo.

The following is based on our conversation.

Arthur Aghajanian: We’re talking about how images are used in contemplative practice. One of the overarching ideas guiding my understanding is that through form, we move to emptiness and in emptiness we find the fullness of the divine. With Orthodox icons and images of deities in the East, one enters contemplation through devotion and love, eventually identifying with the figure who’s pictured. I’d like to consider whether abstract images or images of nature have the same power to inspire contemplation, leading to identification. Might they have an advantage because of their more universal nature than pictures of specific mystics, yogis, sages, and saints?

Don Salmon: That’s a great question. Jan (my wife) is preparing a presentation on beauty as a spiritual path. We’ve been talking a lot about appreciation of beautiful images in the devotional tradition in India, and a very similar approach to beauty in the neo-Platonic tradition of Plotinus.

You begin with appreciation of beauty in outward forms, then move inward to let go of the form and focus more directly on the feeling of appreciation of beauty and the idea of beauty, then you let go of both the outward and inward forms to contemplate the divine source of all beauty.

I love how this plays out in the Indian tradition of devotion. The devotees of Krishna begin with the worship of his form.  Then they let go of his form and lose themselves in the feeling of love for him. Finally, letting go of the form and the feeling, they lose themselves in the divine of which Krishna is a symbol.

Let’s take something that will probably seem perfectly mundane. You can see in the Zoom image, there’s a desk behind me. It doesn’t seem very spiritual. There’s absolutely no reason why I can’t let go of an image of Mary or Jesus or Krishna and just contemplate that image of the desk. And I can find in silence a quality of aliveness and vibration everywhere.

AA: Devotional images have a religious and cultural context. They’re also embedded in forms of spiritual practice. If you don’t belong to any kind of tradition, you feel a distance from its images. Images of nature that help us relax and turn inwards aid in mindfulness but stand apart from religion. They’re assigned spiritual meaning but also appear in aspirational posters adorning the walls of corporate offices, with messages about success or the importance of believing in yourself. The texts are accompanied by picturesque images of forests, tropical beaches, or mountain ranges. I can’t help associating the images used to evoke spirituality with these kitsch objects.

There’s a larger question here about the value of images and who they speak to. If you’re not practicing in a tradition, must you rely on free-floating signifiers: images of nature, or in the videos you and Jan created, pure abstraction? Certain images aid people practicing within a tradition and others appeal to the spiritual but not religious. Yet traditional images have deep roots in a sacred program. How can an image lead us to insight if it’s not embedded within a larger system of worship?

DS: For me, whether it’s a photo or looking out my window, nature has been very powerful and images of people that I’ve known and felt divine presence in is powerful. But for me, a motivation not to focus on specific images is to find the divine in all images, whether it’s the dresser, the Chinese picture on my wall behind me or the sunrise.

AA: Let’s consider whether there’s a difference in the state of consciousness achieved through religious images compared to contemporary images detached from worship. There are icons meant to awaken the heart center, which indicate devotion as a path to the Supreme: the Vladimir Mother of God, thought to be a portrait of the Virgin by St. Luke, the Saint Xenia, and the Virgin of the Sign. Both the image of Sophia and Christ the Pantocrator lead to transcendental wisdom and insight. Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Panteleimon the Healer project the radiance of subtle energies. The Virgin of Kazan transmits loving kindness through inner silence. Christ the Savior in Glory inspires a sense of oneness with God. There are even cosmological icons that can be understood the way mandalas are. These relate to different types of consciousness raising and open the doors to deeper states.

DS: As the silence I talked about earlier becomes established, you begin to abandon methods and abandon images. You come to realize it’s not so much about the image or the method, it’s about a simple shift of consciousness.  With that shift, you begin to recognize the divine manifesting in all forms.  I can look at an Orthodox icon or a cloud over a mountain or a drawer and it can inspire the same shift of consciousness. So, there’s a difference in the state regardless of the image or method, depending on your level of practice, depending on the extent of pervasion of that infinite silence, stillness, and spaciousness.

AA: Just to stay with Orthodox icons for a moment, we can think of their use not as a method, but a portal to God. These icons are considered embodiments of divine spirit as reflected by the person pictured, whether it’s a saint or Mary or Jesus. I think it could be argued by a practitioner that it’s not a method as much as it is coming to a place where you’re meeting your beloved—it’s a gateway to that. You’re going towards inner silence, loving kindness, or a greater insight because you’re bringing with you the recognition that the icon you’re communing with has power. If you’re fully engaged and you believe that is your way, then you can achieve insight.

If it doesn’t work for you or if you’re an outsider to the tradition, then perhaps it would look like a methodology, in which case one thing is as good as another. You choose the thing that you can relate to whether it’s nature, images of animals, or no imagery at all—a sound or mantra. But I’m imagining it from the perspective of a believer. A person who effectively does enter states of higher consciousness through images. They won’t necessarily limit someone who’s able to use them to connect with God.

DS: If it can work as a portal. I think even for the believer, it’s helpful to teach them this: For you at this point in time, this particular icon or image or thought of a spiritual saint or teacher is perhaps the most powerful portal for this.  However, keep in mind that there will come a time when either it’s no longer relevant or you won’t need it.

AA: If an image can help us identify the presence of awareness, it’s fulfilled its purpose. Being open to different gateways through images while being aware of their limitations is important. You don’t have to rely on specific images for meaningful experiences.

I think of how the dignity of created matter extends to the painted image. When we speak of the Cosmic Christ, we mean the entire created universe is an extension or part of Christ consciousness. It’s interesting to consider iconoclasm and the Old Testament banning of images, and that in the New Testament we learn of the incarnation, which can be extended to all of God’s creation. When we’re worshiping through an image, it’s not the image itself we worship—it’s not an idol. It’s a portal of representation. If it didn’t form a bridge to the divine, the image would not have the value it does. Images become sacred through intentional production and use, and they’re contingent upon their context.

DS:  I think that no matter whether we feel we’re drawn more toward the imageless, the “apophatic,” or the image, the “cataphatic,” if we look at ourselves sincerely, we find that we are all cataphatic at the beginning, worshipping the “idols” of materialistic civilization—on our screens, in the entertainment that absorbs us, in the news and so on.  We may seek escape from this by going to the imageless and assume that is our only access to the purity of God.  But I have come to recognize, even in my apophatic phases, that it can be very helpful to attend, with the heart, to whatever feeling of the divine presence arises in the midst of our interaction with the forms of daily life.  Perhaps even in our formal seated practice, we may begin by reviewing the day (or previewing the day to come if we are engaged in contemplative prayer and meditation in the morning) and see whatever sense of divine presence arises as the faces and places of the day pass through our awareness.

We may also find that a person—Christ, for those who have that connection, an icon, a NASA image of outer space, or the face of a spiritual friend, may evoke this sense of presence.  We can have faith that whenever there is a genuine aspiration for the manifestation of divine love, images may support us in awakening that aspiration and love.

AA: There’s also radicality in the evacuation of all imagery. I’ve learned that through Zen. The zero ground of being that’s image-less and wordless. That’s probably the central thing that drew me to the mystical path in Christianity and brought me back home. But images also help us grasp the vastness of the divine.

In Hinduism, God exists everywhere. The reason that God takes so many forms is not reflective of pantheism. It’s due to the image’s role in making God approachable. In humility, God appears in an accessible way to the devotee, so they aren’t overwhelmed. The sacred image presents God in a comprehensible way. It’s like a spark of the divine in the sunset or other natural event. The transcendent One manifests in many forms for the devotee’s welfare. It’s a concession motivated by love.

DS: I think we need both image-based and non-image-based meditation. Both work in different ways to cut through our assumptions about what this world is and about what God is. Ultimately, images and non-image-based practice are inseparable because we live in both worlds all the time—we live in a world which is basically a world of divine imagination, and in the background of all there is that divine, infinite, fathomless silence.

It is certainly possible to go very deep into one of the spiritual traditions, but what’s lost if we don’t make a connection, is we lose the opportunity to live in the 21st century. The images of our traditions are centuries and centuries old, and they’ve lost, for so many of us, so much of their original meaning.

Actually, the contemporary world religion, whether we like it or not, is science. Scientists are the priests of the worldly religion. And they are preaching (innocently, usually without realizing it) a dangerous form of nihilism, which is destroying the planet. And we need to bring contemplation to the imagery of science, a cataphatic divine, contemplation of the world of technology, as well as of theoretical science, to revivify it with divine richness.

AA: Maybe we can get clues for how to do that from the way traditional images have been made sacred. For example, hallowed images are anointed. They’re imbued with transformative power because the artist, whether in the West or East, is trained methodically by a master. The image is produced according to strict requirements. The artist and their work undergo a ritual before the image can acquire the transformative power of a holy object. There’s a respect for tradition.

Then the image is embedded within a network of liturgy, practice, and community. And that’s what gives it its power. It’s also why, if somebody does not have a relationship to Buddhist culture and tries to adopt and meditate with a thangka, they’ll miss a lot.

DS: I think I have a video which may be helpful in regard to what you’re talking about, bringing together traditional art and contemporary images. I have always loved the Rilke poem, Buddha in Glory. One day I was reading it and I heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I said, these two belong together.

Jan made a video, and in this video, she incorporated a very beautiful Buddha statue that we have. So, there’s one part of what you’re talking about, icons used as imagery for contemplation. Now, there’s a line in the Rilke poem, “the rich thick fluids rise and flow,” and to accompany the reading of that line she has abstract images of light undulating.

Finally, she’s taken NASA photos of galaxies. So now we have a concrete icon from an ancient spiritual tradition, abstract imagery, and images from our contemporary scientific world. And she weaves them together to illustrate Rilke’s poem. What we’re aiming to do in our work is to bring together the historical imagery, abstract imagery, the modern world of science, and to evoke the infinite in all of them. I think this relates to your questions in that we are seeking to inspire intimations of the divine both in specific concrete traditional imagery as well as the images of the world around us, discovering that quite truly, as Paul said, we live and move and have our being in that omnipresent, infinite reality which some have referred to as “God.”

Dan and Jan Salmon, Rilke’s “Buddha in Glory” with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

AA: One of the things I think of when you describe that project is how in our historical moment, we have access to things that in the past were unheard of. We’ve also broken a lot of boundaries in terms of form. With a multimedia presentation reaching wide numbers of people, pulling together all these new powers we have, we create and disseminate new kinds of images all the time. Or we use existing media and techniques for sharing traditional messages with an audience that’s tuned in to new ways of perceiving.

One thing that we haven’t addressed is purely abstract imagery. I’m thinking of your videos, the ones that don’t have the overlapping of nature, but that are purely movement, color, and pattern. They relate to psychedelia, which is a culturally and historically specific language. I see those videos as representations of perceptual experiences. The whole hallucinogenic and LSD representation of psychedelic art and imagery. So, if I’m distracted by the image of bears playing in the woods or an abstract image that reminds me of the New Age movement, it becomes an impediment. That’s the trap of images. They can also be fetishized.

I’m also reminded of how images of nature in the spiritual marketplace are a form of kitsch. Kitsch imagery is inauthentic because it’s not connected to a divine representation. It’s made to elicit an emotional response. Sentimentalism or nostalgia or whatever it might be. One of the stumbling blocks with abstract images is that if they are in any way referential, even through abstraction—relating to abstract painting, I can be distracted in the same way as I may be with images of nature: a photograph or painting of a landscape.

DS: Those psychedelic images you see in art are actually naturally occurring things. What the drugs actually trigger in our consciousness is quite similar to what arises when theta brain waves are predominant. This is the brainwave state when you’re almost asleep, or almost about to begin dreaming.

We may associate it with psychedelics, but it’s actually something that occurs naturally, and the Mandalas of the Tibetan and Indian meditative traditions were possibly formed out of that.

But again, the kind of image ultimately doesn’t matter. If you have that contemplative attitude towards whatever kinds of images arise, you can make use of all of them for contemplation, for evoking divinity, the infinite, the sacred. You can use images, you can be cataphatic, you can choose not to use images, to be apophatic. You can use the breath, or a mantra, a candle flame, or you can just be present.

If you know how to navigate the different kinds of attention, if you know how to navigate from the love and wisdom of the heart, then you can use any portal—or even no portal. That’s when you realize there’s never been anywhere to go or to get to because the kingdom of heaven is as present now as it ever will be.

AA: The apophatic and cataphatic are not exclusive of one another. A whole process of prayer includes both kinds for various needs, purposes, and situations. It goes back to non-duality and the unity of consciousness. The switching off that you’re describing comes back in a religious context and specifically Christian one in the shifting between apophatic and cataphatic prayer.

For example, even though verbal prayer isn’t something that feels essential to me, at this point in my spiritual maturity, I can appreciate it. Now when we say grace at the table, I’m not thinking “it’s awkward to talk to God”. Instead, I’m focused on my family being together, recognizing that there’s something larger than us, and we’re communing with each other in the wholeness of God’s love.

© 2021 Arthur Aghajanian

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