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When We Pray: Reflections on Prayer & Meditation

INSPIRATION

My initial interest in devotional images was birthed in my childhood. The first devotional images I encountered were found within some old family bibles that I found on book shelves in various family members homes.  I was fascinated by these depictions of divine beings and biblical figures. At school I would go to the library and check out various art books that depicted images created by the old European Renaissance Masters – especially those featuring the works of Da Vinci and Durer. In college, I was once again drawn back to these same images with a greater capacity for understanding  after I entered art school and began to receive in-depth training in drawing, painting, and art history. 

My first attempt at creating a devotional image did not occur until I received a commission from the President of my seminary – Dr. Louis Charles Harvey. He commissioned me to create a large watercolor illustration of African slaves with wings on their feet flying up and away from the plantation fields and into the vast expanse of the heavens. His inspiration for this image was based upon the old Negro Spiritual, Steal Away to Heaven. I later completed a second image based upon the biblical Annunciation event (the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she has been chosen to conceive Jesus – Luke 1.26-38) for a doctoral class on Christian iconography.

The impetus for the “When We Pray” series was birthed out of my own personal experiences with prayer and meditation. Prayer is an essential component of the spiritual life and its importance is emphasized throughout all spiritual traditions. Although we often make a distinction between prayer and meditation, the two often support and interpenetrate one another. For my purposes, prayer can most easily be defined as communication with the divine.  Prayer, like any other form of communication must involve both sending and receiving. Thus it occurs within the context of dialogue and mutuality. In order for this mutuality to be authentic there must be some real capacity for both parties to affect and be affected.

We could also define prayer as the movement or opening of the heart towards the divine. This movement or opening involves a change of focus and orientation that tunes one in to the divine frequency so that one is prepared to engage with the divine in dialogue and mutuality. From this perspective, one simply seeks spirit through the focus of attention and expectation on the divine and communication results as a natural part of the process. The underlying assumption is that our creator wants to be to in communion with the creation in dialogue and mutuality.

SYMBOLISM

My intention was to create an image which depicted: a) my understanding of prayer, and b) visually communicate the mood and feelings which accompanied some of my own experiences with prayer and meditation.  I wanted to give birth to all of the sensations I had experienced energetically, emotionally, psychically, and physically. At the outset, there was no plan to create a series of images, there was simply a compelling desire to make visible the invisible, to encapsulate that which is universal within the particularity of a single image. Each daily encounter with spirit provides new experiences and information that can fuel another image, always the same and yet somehow always miraculously different. It is this miraculous quality which spurred me to complete more images over the course a year. It wasn’t until I had begun the fifth image that I decided to complete the series at seven works – thus symbolizing completion.

All of the works contain two constant motifs: 1) the divine presence being symbolized through the use of a hand(s), and 2) each figure is cocooned within a pulsating field of spiritual energy. The presence of these two motifs in each image is a visual representation of the quality of sameness or consistency that accompanies prayer and meditation, yet all the while other aspects of theses same elements can be different or convey slightly different qualities. It is the same, yet at the same time always different. In these works this quality is conveyed by depicting each cocoon differently, the hand (or hands) are depicted in varying positions, and in each image symbols are present but they vary in size, shape, and meaning.

Hands

The symbolism of hands is pregnant with a wide range of possibilities. The divine hand is an image that is encountered across a wide range of religious literature. The Christian bible often makes references to the hand or finger of God resting upon, supporting. protecting, surrounding…various persons and situations. The Exodus narrative is a perfect example of the use of this symbol with great effect (for more information see my blog post from October 2014). In my personal experiences the divine presence expresses its self in a variety of ways that often give me sense of being held, caressed, protected, stroked, supported, guided or whatever else may be appropriate at that particular time. This sense is one which I have experienced consistently within my prayers and meditations.

Divine Energy/Light

The sensation of energy, light, Chi, Holy Spirit, aura, magnetic fields, bioelectricity…is one of the most widely acknowledged examples of the various ways one can encounter spiritual power during prayer and meditation. Although many of these terms describe very distinct forms of experience they all ultimately originate from one common divine source. Each praying figure is surrounded by a divine light which is intentionally biomorphic in form and unclear in origin. One is not sure if the light originates from the praying figure, or one of the symbols which are depicted within the image. I deliberately chose to alternate the tone of  the light surrounding each figure by depicting the energies in black (Fig. 1, 3, 5 & 7) or white (Fig. 2, 4 & 6).

When We Pray

I

This is the 1st image in the series. The hands symbolize the presence of the divine supporting, sustaining, protecting, touching, caressing, loving…each of us as we open ourselves to know and be known. In this image the cross represents divine sacrifice and protection, while our connection to the divine is represented through the Tibetan symbol of enlightenment within and above the figure. 

 When We Pray II

II

This 2nd image makes use of a single hand which supports the standing figure.  The divinity within is represented by the Reiki symbol of enlightenment emanating from the figures back. The Yantra behind the figure is the Sodasi which represents perfection, totality and the full cycle of creation.

 When We Pray III

III

This is the 3rd image of the series. The symbol behind the figure is the Islamic Hand of Fatima which is indicative of divine protection, and the Egyptian Eye of Horus which represents enlightenment and supra-natural intuition. The aureole-like 8 point star is indicative of enlightenment, the Bahai faith, and the 8-fold path of the Buddha. The transfer of energies is symbolized by the yin/yang symbols within and below the meditating figure.

 When we Pray IV IV

This 4th image depicts a figure in prostration before the divine in prayer and supplication. The symbol below the figure represents the power of Islam as does the Crescent moon and star suspended above it. The rays of divine light pour forth from the Crescent moon as it shines forth piercing the darkness with the light of truth.

 When we Pray V

V

The 5th image of this series incorporates the use of a female figure.  Images 5, 6 and 7 all make use of the female form to complete the series. Unlike image #2 this figure faces the viewer as she stands with outstretched arms before the divine in prayer and supplication. The symbol above the figure represents the flow of divine energies that surround the figure. The star behind the figure symbolizes heavenly light pouring forth in crystalline form as she is delicately perched upon divine hands.

 When we Pray VI

VI

This is the 6th image in the series, the 2nd female figure, and the second seated figure. She is seated in meditation with her palms together in front of her heart. The symbol above her represents the Buddhist wheel of life and its 8-fold path. The symbol below the figure represents Sikhism but has been turned upside down. I took some artistic license with this symbol for the sake of the composition. To my knowledge, this does not alter the symbol’s meaning. As with all the images in this series, the divine energies surround the figure as heavenly light bursts forth from above her.

 When we Pray VII

VII

This is the 7th and final image of the series. This female figure is in a prayer position with her palms turned upward toward the heavens. The divine hands are cupped around the figure as if they are forming a shield of supernatural power and protection. I chose to complete the series by only using symbols derived from African sources. The symbol above the figure represents the divine Eye of Horus which mimics the shape of the pineal gland and its association with the 3rd eye, or intuition. The symbol below the figure is the crescent moon of Islam which is predominant among most parts of East and North Africa. The outer symbol is an interpretation of the ankh. As with all the images in this series, divine energies surround the figure but in this final image the light is emanating from the figure herself as indicated by the use of light and shading inside the hands.

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Damon Powell – Artist & Theologian

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MEDITATIO: A VISUAL MEDITATION

INSPIRATION

I have been incorporating various forms of meditation into my spiritual tool box since the mid 1990’s. My initial exploration into the practice of meditation began after I read the writings of Ron Hubbard in the early 1980’s. I began experimenting with some of his practices but was too young to maintain the discipline required for me to gain any substantial benefits from my practice – so I eventually abandoned it.

My first consistent exploration was the result of my participation in a Tai Chi class. Tai Chi is a martial art form that can also be used as a moving form of meditation. The first 15-20 minutes of class were spent under guided meditation that would help calm and center the students before we began practice with the movements and forms. The practice of Tai Chi provided a solid foundation that has served me well.

The inspiration for this image came about as a direct result of my meditation practice. The focus of that particular morning was upon maintaining my awareness of the inner and outer dimensions of my experience simultaneously. Sitting quietly, calmly focusing upon my breath and then expanding my awareness gently outward in hopes of being more present to both the internal rhythms of my body (heartbeat, breath…) and the external, sensual dimensions of my surroundings (smell, hearing, feeling…). At some point I entered a space of deeply personal stillness as if I was suspended in a single moment and was completely aware of both the external and internal dimensions of my existence, but there was also something more – an acute awareness of energy flowing in, through, and around me. it was active and dynamic, but also gentle and delicate at the same time.  The result of that experience left me with a burning desire to communicate what I was feeling in some way.

These kinds of insights have been recognized by many spiritual teachers who have called for the elevation of intuition over reason, and pushed for greater acceptance of the kinds of knowledge and experience gained through practices like meditation, intuitionism, and super rationalism. They postulate that this knowledge is based on experience which is sui generis, that is – of a different kind. In my experience ultimate truths have always been more readily accessible through intuitive, mystical, or artistic experiences. Earl Coleman finds that both the aesthetic and the spiritual often share identical traits. Both artists and those who engage in spiritual practices have often spoken about reaching a point in which they achieve a heightened state of awareness. A space in which they are “caught up” into a higher level of consciousness that allows them to see, and feel in a new heightened way. Many have felt an acute awareness of a power greater than themselves at work, yet it was all-at-once a part of their “self.” For instance, those who engage in meditation experience the same brain wavelength patterns as persons who are engaged in “creative” activities like drawing, composing, writing….etc. The feelings one experiences during times of creation or meditation are much more distinct, and of a drastically different quality than ordinary emotions (sui generis). Both the spiritual and the aesthetic give one a sense of having come in contact with the ineffable, ultimate reality, or what theologian Paul Tillich often referred to as the “ground of being.” At the least, these activities create experiences which are out of the ordinary, thereby moving us toward a deeper connection with something beyond.

MEDITATIO

SYMBOLISM

Center Oval

The overarching theme of this work is about the balancing of energies. I wanted to make a direct connection between the spiritual energies that surround us and their presence deep within us. The seated figure at the center is the both the sender and receiver of these divine energies. The figure is seated in a meditation pose which is often found in the yogic tradition. The Yin Yang symbol directly between the legs is situated at the point of the root chakra. This placement of symbolic energies here mirrors the outer spiritual energies which swirl around the outer portions of the composition. Notice the mirroring effect as the placement of the orange and yellow swirls is opposite of the placement found around the outside of the composition. 

The praying figure behind the young man is representative of both the “higher self” and/or a spiritual guardian who both protects and intercedes when needed. The idea for this figure has validation in a wide variety of traditions whether it be in the form of guardian, angels and spirit guides, or ideas about the existence of a higher self or astral body. Notice this figure is also in a position of prayer or meditation as it works to support the other’s spiritual efforts. My own experience often includes the feeling of being held, watched or even connected to a greater presence which is in some ways me, but not me. I equate this with the concept of the higher self or the inner observer who notices what I notice. 

The green and blue swirls are representative of the earth which acts as source of energy and ground for us here in the physical realm. The dynamic swirling action reminds of the flow of physical energies of land and sea as they swirls connect directly to the outer swirls in a continuous line outward from the center of the composition. The thin white line serves as a transition point between the two forms of energy as they transition back and forth from one form to another. 

Outer Oval

The outer oval portion of the composition is depicts the swirling spiritual energies that surround and support all physical life. These higher forms of vibration are responsible for both spiritual power and the divine’s raw untapped creative potential. They are directly linked to the earthly energies via the transitional line that governs their transformation into the physical realm. I chose to include the two star points to balance out the composition and to indicate the spark of divine light and mind that governs the swirling mass of raw creative potential. it is mind and higher light which directs the all creation. The very act of creating necessitates some kind of form without it there could be no creation.  The character located within the star points is the Sanskrit symbols for Om. In the Vedic tradition, Om is the meditational frequency of the universe (creation). 

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MEDITATIO

SOURCES

Earle J. Coleman, Creativity and Spirituality: Bonds Between Art and Religion. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998)