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Meditation: The Making of Images

Meditation: The Making of Images
By Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD


From the Rig Veda to Plato the act of imagining is the secret technology of the mystics. While most people use fantasy to achieve the results they fantasize for the sake of the subject, and theologians use concepts to claim knowledge and revelation, imagining has been always the technology of a few souls, from East and West, in their effort to repeat the divine act of creation uncontaminated by human faculties. For this reason and to describe what this technology is based on I have chosen to write this paper following the clear descriptions of this act as found in the writings of Ignatius de Loyola and as he used them in the making of his Spiritual Exercises. The reason for this choice is the radical need of presenting how images are made, rather than borrowed in meditation. It is my contention that this tradition of making images in meditation is present wherever meditation is practiced. It is common in Hinduism, from the Rig Veda down, in Buddhism, and in Christianity, as well as in other religions. The aim of such presentation is to show that in religious practice no image may be borrowed.


Ignatius is convinced that meditation is the road to that inner space that may be revealed, opened, touched, uncovered by that unique act of creation, unique to meditation, and by no other creature, object or sensation. Only God, he believes, owns the human center (Exer. 316, 322, 329, 330).But this center is covered by a communications system, a natural attitude, a self indulgence, that impedes human access to it. Ignatius’ initiation into this mystery is a definite effort at breaking down this communication system and building a new one through which the soul and God may communicate. Since the external communications system has also, through language and its repetition, through the use of the faculties and the repetition of this use, sensitized the subject into a series of body sensations and their habitual comfort, the new system of communications will aim precisely at destroying, suspending, this habituation. The exercises start in the human body and end in the transformation of this same human body. The body is the primary text and primary technology, while the discourse about the experience is the “secondary text” and “secondary technology.” Through the exercises a new language is given the retreatant, a new memory and a new imagination. Through this retraining a new will might emerge in harmony with the Will of God.

Language and the Will

The first week of the exercises is one of trial and training. It is a time of testing the will of the retreatant and the body of that will. Not everyone’s body is ready for meditation at the particular time chosen for the exercises. Ignatius wants to single out those who might continue and those who should proceed no further. Though the exercises carry so much promise they could also be dangerous to one’s health if not done under the best physical conditions. Ignatius says of “those with poco suiecto (little temperament, lack of stamina and preparation) that “they should not proceed any further” (Exer. 18).

This first week is one of violence to the body habits of the retreatant. He is asked to search for a “place” (Exer. 20) away from the ordinary place to which he/she is normally accustomed: the cave of Manresa, a lonely room, a different room from the one usually inhabited, a different house, a monastery in the country, an unaccustomed place, a place where the retreatant has to invent new body habits and where outside communications systems do not reach. The retreatant is also instructed about lights: less in the first and third weeks, more in the second and fourth (Exer. 79). The retreatant’s body is subjected to new and calculated positions: kneeling, prostrating oneself face down, standing with the head bent down, pacing, walking, sitting rigidly (Exer. 74, 75, 76, 77) lowering the eyes, raising the eyes, closing out sounds, listening to special rhythms as the meditation dictates (Exer. 81, 258). The whole body of the retreatant must be reeducated until it becomes like a repellent to the external communications system and habits he/she was familiar with. All gestures, facial expressions, bodily movements, bodily expression must be painstakingly gone over as if in slow motion so that the body becomes impervious to the outside and begins to learn the technologies of facing and gathering within.

The will of the retreatant is now used as a surgical knife to cut some openings into the interior world. The whole attention of the retreatant is now away from the outer world even if in order to achieve this he/she must cut to pieces, one by one, the different lived moments of his/her life, the different moments of a day, of a prayer, of a meditation, of an examination of conscience, of an act, a look, a thought (Exer. 24, 25, 26, 27, 33, 34, 38, 42, 43). But on the trail of these acts of the will a language is being formed: “intense pain and tears,” ugliness and evil…of sin” (Exer. 57), compare God’s attributes to yours, wisdom and ignorance, omnipotence and weakness, justice and inequity, goodness and selfishness (Exer. 59), “esclamacion admirative con crescido afecto” (shout with amazement and filled with a growing emotion) (Exer. 60); self-pity, gratitude, amazement, disgust, consolation, desolation (Exer. 62) are the signs of this language the will has started to create by turning the entire life and every minute of it into an interior timetable where only the chimes of eternity are heard. By the time the will becomes habituated to those exercises there will no longer be room for external and familiar languages. The clock of the “solitary region” is now running. The interior timetable now determines one’s waking (Exer. 74), the kind of prayer, examinations of conscience (Exer. 43) and meditations one makes and what conversations one will bring to the guide of the exercise. The prayer may take various forms; it may be light and relax the emotions (Exer. 238), or it may focus on the seven deadly sins (Exer. 244), or on the three powers of the soul (Exer. 246). It may become a meditation which considers every word pronounced (Exer. 249), or which concentrates only on those points of meditation “where I felt the most intense spiritual feeling” (Exer. 62). And, of course, we must not forget, a new diet has to be included (Exer. 84), and one should sleep with less comfort than one is used to and cause sensible pain to the body (Exer. 85). Even while going to sleep there is no stopping this clock; one should prepare oneself for the coming day by going over the memory-points of the meditation one is going to make in the morning (Exer. 73). Upon awakening, one should bring to mind what one is about to meditate on. The clock of the “solitary region” does not allow any external language to come in; there are no cracks between exercises: “no dando lugar a unos pensamientos ni a otros” (not to make room for this kind of thoughts or any other) (Exer. 74).

Spiritual exercises, however, do not compare to any army “boot camp.” Ignatius is very sensitive to that: “If the one giving the exercises sees that he who makes them is in desolation or temptation, he should not be harsh or severe with him, but rather gentle and soft…” (Exer.17). And if at times Ignatius recommends acting against natural inclinations (agere contra, do the opposite Exer. 13, 16), as when one feels like not going the length of a whole hour in meditation, one should therefore at once decide to go for one hour and a half. He also makes the exercitant aware that all those things he/she is trained to do are only means to an end. One should use, therefore, those things only “tanto… cuanto” (as much as) (Exer. 23) one needs to in order to achieve those ends. For in the end the exercises are for the soul to get ready to receive the Will of God, not suggestions from the guide of the exercises, or confessors, or friends, or enemies: …it is much better, in searching for the divine Will, to let Our Creator and Lord communicate Himself to the devoted soul…” (Exer.15).

The exercises of the will and the hint of the language that emerges builds around the inner space of the retreatant a scaffolding of inner habits ready to sustain the new emerging body of meditation. But then the drama unfolds. While the retreatant experiences the excitement of the new, he/she also experiences the bereavement of the familiar. The retreatant is not guaranteed that the divinity may enter the solitary space, while the familiar will no longer feel the same. The retreatant can never anticipate what is about to happen or even if it will happen. One needs to give up everything and, yet, one cannot anticipate that the empty spaces are going to be filled. This journey needs raw human faith, the exercises themselves that keep opening horizons of language, and memory along with its predictability. The exercise now is memory.

Memory and Predictability

The origin of Christianity was an experience that had already happened. It originated outside of time with the Trinity and entered time in the Second Person of the Trinity through the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption. It is precisely because of the fact that this experience has already happened that for every. Christian to know is to remember. Memory makes of Christians communities and religion; it is the common ground of memories, on which all stand, that joins them as community. Without memory Christianity could not be articulated. Christ had already set down the internal law of the community: “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22, 19) And even when the Father will send, in Christ’s name, the Comforter, the Spirit, He will do it to “bring all things to your remembrance” (John 14, 25). To be a Christian is primarily to live on memory, to turn memory around, to store memories, to turn every sign, whatever its origin, into a memory-point, to articulate those memories so that memory remains active. Those memories are the remembrance of the Will of God in operation. They are the memory of a past actively present and therefore, being God’s Will, with a future. It is a memory that predictably organizes the future. But not without human effort and participation. Strictly speaking, the Spiritual Exercises are a string of memories, of memory-points. Even the exercises as written are not to be read for information or edification or content. Each and every word is slowly and carefully chiseled out so that it becomes a memory-point for action, or for making memory.

The journey of the retreatant’s will dividing his/her life into the search for sins, the day divided into exercises of the will to discover flaws, to remove flaws, these exercises are primarily exercises in memory: memories that travel back and forth, up and down, within the perimeters of a human life. Meditation begins by “bringing to memory” the first sin of the angels (Exer. 50); “by bringing to memory” the sin of Adam and Eve (Exer. 51); “by bringing to memory” our sins (Exer. 52), all the sins of my lifetime (Exer. 56), year by year, place by place, looking at the places I have lived, conversations I have had, work done (Exer. ibid.); bring to memory to instruct the intellect in it: “so that the intellect, without meandering, may reason with concentration going over the reminiscences (memories) of the things contemplated in past exercises…” (Exer. 64). Ignatius literally means, through the Exercises, “to bring all things into remembrance.” In order to bring all things into remembrance, however, demands from us certain shifts in technologies. In every case human effort is needed.

Ignatius de Loyola shared with the other mystics of his time habits of reading different from ours. Early in his Autobiography (Autobiography 6 and 7) he lets us know how he used reading in order to fix memory points and visualize the things the Saints did and that he could also do. With these memories he would then dream of doing greater things for the service of God. In this manner Ignatius kept his mind well occupied. Ignatius’ knowledge came through the experience of meditation, not through reasoning out the mysteries of Christianity. It is true that the Exercises use the three potencies or faculties of the soul, but it is through memory that they are held together, or by turning all things into remembrance. The flight of the soul will eventually take place through imagining.

Turning all things into remembrance is not an easy task, however. The memories of Christianity are not factual history, are not deeds humans caused on humans or nature. In order to turn all things into remembrance one must perform a radical hermeneutical act. How does one remember “the souls in hell” or the Trinity before Creation, or angels sinning, or how Christ used his five senses, or even one’s own sins without a radical reinterpretation of those cognitive ciphers in view of the experience that already happened? Those are living memories to a Christian and therefore recoverable. To recall them is to call them, and therefore, they may be articulated in language. They are the language in which imagining takes place. On these memory units imagining will act. This memory bank is the only security the retreatant has that the system works; it is the language of Christianity, its communications system. It is in this sense, of memory in use, that memory acts with an element of predictability in the system. Memory, by turning back, vivifies the retreatant and guarantees the future. Memory mediates all human action: it is language and it is divine human life.

Imagining as Individual Dismemberment

Language, in order not to be a dead language, must be used, spoken, written down. Memories would become dead if not activated through acts of imagining.

Contrary to contemporary practices in psychology, where imagining is guided so that individuals and groups share the same image and are guided in imagining it, or where archetypal images are the object, goal, and the identity of imagining, Ignatius, astonishingly enough, leaves the retreatant entirely to his/her “own abilities” (Exer.18) when guiding him/her in the act of imagining. Ignatius provides memory points, describes how to imagine, but the images of imagining are absent from the Exercises . Actual imagining is the retreatant’s exercise. This may be understood because Ignatius cannot draw on any existing reservoir of images in order to correct mistaken identities. He cannot draw from any subjective field of images with which the subject may be more or less familiar, because through some of those images individuals have already experienced transformations, even creations. Ignatius displaces the retreatant from any subjective or objective pools of images and vigorously transplants him/her to an imageless field where the absence of images will force the exercise of creating them. This kind of imagining is the more powerful because it does not rest on images anyone ever before created. Neither the exercitant nor the world has the images of the exercises of imagining. The images to be born are of a sheer power of imagining which includes not only the act of imagining, but the act of creating the images.

This strategy of Ignatius is so demanding that it rests more on the actual technologies of imagining than on any images. Thus his insistence on the technology of concentration in order to bring out the pure image, the uncontaminated image, the image in perfect solitude, the original image, the divine image. The image created in meditation is the only image that will gain currency in meditation. One cannot borrow it, one must create it. In this creation all other images are automatically excluded. The whole technology developed in the Exercises has one aim: the perfect image, for it is in it and through it that God’s signs will appear. The image will turn to language and return to the public domain.

The pure image, the original image, will penetrate the public domain if first it penetrates the material body of the retreatant. This material body is always set facing the scene, the image, to be imagined. But this material body is a fluid body through imagining: a slave in the Nativity, a knight in the Two Kingdoms, a sinner facing the Cross; or it may change sizes if compared to other men, the angels, God (Exer. 58); it may become a vermin worth “many hells” (Exer. 60); or the temple, image of God, animated by God, sensitized by Him (Exer. 235).

Technically, however, this material fluid body of the retreatant, becomes dismembered through the act of imagining. Ignatius conceives imagining as an act of dismembering the senses by running them in isolation, one by one, through the image being made.

The retreatant is placed in front of a scene and asked to make his/her own “contemplacion viendo el lugar” (contemplation seeing the place). With exhausting detail, he/she is asked to make up the scene; the road: how long, wide, flat running through valleys or hills; the cave: how big, small, how high, how low, how furnished (Exer.112). Imagine hell, the width and depth and length (Exer. 65), or imagine the synagogue, villages and castles (Exer. 91), or the Three Divine Persons (Exer.102), or Mary riding a donkey or Joseph pulling an ox (Exer.110). But for Ignatius the image alone is not the source of signs. The image on recall is to call it to memory. The actual birth of the signs or the system of signs does not take place until the retreatant proceeds, through imagining, to “read” the image through his own dismembered sensorium. The perfect image, the solitary image, the divine image is set into motion through the sensuous motion of the retreatant’s senses as he or she runs them, one at a time, through the image. It takes the “reading” of the image by each sense so that it becomes a mediation of signs. The efficacy of the image is made possible on condition that the subject be kept elusively absent, as a fixed unity, in the act of imagining. What he or she is asked to do instead is to lend sight, sound, smell, touch, movement to the image. The image must be filled through the reading of each sense on the image. He or she vitalizes the image through his or her dismembered sensorium. Each sense must read the image separately; each sense must sensitize the image separately; each sense must read/write its separate movement on the image separately. What is done through visualization must be repeated through hearing, smelling, touching, moving. This applies to the exercises on hell, the Nativity, the Cross, Resurrection, in short, to any exercises where images are to be imagined.

It is the exercise of imagining that makes the appearance of signs and the articulation of both as a language possible. Images of themselves, do nothing. The retreatant must exercise them by reading/writing sensation on them. In its preparatory stage imagining is a technology that if performed in all its purity will return signs and articulate itself into a language. It will also force the sensible signs to appear in the act of sensitizing the image of meditation. As a consequence and because it is an embodied technology, it will also desensitize the subjects to their original unities and attachments while sensitizing them to the new and fresh sensations. Imagining, therefore, with its preliminary organization of daily acts, memories and sensitizing of images, is the primary technology through which a language/text appears and may be articulated. Without this primary text written in the human body, this technology of habituation, signs will not appear nor the language of their articulation. The primary technology thus is the causal origin of the signs, the diacritical systems of signs, that are to be read. The reading of those signs will have several readers: the retreatant, his director or confessor, his spiritual guide, whoever is trained to read such a text. The reader must know the primary technology and the primary text and be an expert in reading the signs. He/she must be able to read them even if he/she is not the author of the primary text or the reader/writer of the primary technology. It is on this condition that the primary text and primary technology produce not only a language but also the possibility of its articulation, either as a private articulation to a spiritual guide, or as a public articulation for the public domain.


Though this hermeneutical task is unfinished, it should be suggestive enough to encourage all those interested in deeper unities than theological civilities to search for a way of making possible inter-religious communities where serious, dedicated forms of meditation are made available to all.

Human technologies divide into two groups: one follows the image of the sinner-Savior model where the individual has hardly any room to do anything on his/her own, for he/she is always at the mercy of “compliance” with an ethical code dictated by this model.

On the other hand, there is the Avatara-mystical model, the individual uses technologies that infuse all his/her brains with knowledge and allows him or her to embody the human paradigm as it moves along. Heart Ethics is the guide here, and the training is geared to be able to chose from among the possible (dharma) facing you, the best, by habit, as Plato and Indic texts proposed before him and is found in the mystical literature of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and other mystics.

Before Ignatius wrote his Exercises Indic Tradition had already imprinted the paradigm in the human species with the practices of the yogas of the Bhagavad Gita. Krisna moves by the neural pathways of the left brain to gain distance from Arjuna’s trauma, and on to the communities of the right brain practices, embodying them as he moves to the point when in chapter eleven he shows the bewildered Arjuna his geometries without the forms Arjuna so loved or feared, or with the forms already destroyed. Kalo’smi: I am Time, Krisna proclaims, I am all a man can be, now…And so can you if you learn to make decisions. Of course, Indic Tradition does not have to deal with the sinner-Savior model for in this Tradition, from the Rig Veda down, all the gods are “this side of Creation,” as the Rig Veda proclaims, and manas (the mind) is not a faculty but one more of the senses.

And so, in the end, make sure your exercises correspond to your available neural connections and brain centers, restrain your fantasy, cancel out your left brain until you leave meditation and translate whatever happened there into ordinary prose or poetry or simple power of decision making. There are two roads, make sure you find the one leading to the technologies of the heart.


de Nicolas, A.T. (1986) Powers of Imagining: Ignatius de Loyola, State University of
New York Press, Albany N.Y

(1976,8,2003) Meditations Through the Rig Veda, Shambhala, Boulder- London, Nicolas-Hays, iUniverse.com.

(1990) The Bhagavad Gita, Nicolas-Hays, York Beach, Maine

(1989,1996) St. John of the Cross; Alchemist of the soul. Nicolas-Hays, York Beach, Maine

(1976) Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy. Nicolas-Hays, Maine and New York .

Note: Meditations and Avatara will soon be ready at iUniverse.com and on line.

Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.

A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.

His books of poetry: Remembering the God to ComeThe Sea Tug ElegiesOf Angels and WomenMostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:

from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”

from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”

from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”

Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.