Deity-Focused Compassion Meditation

This post begins with Apollon, the Lord of Abiding Compassion. Apollon is the God who harmonizes all things together. He pulls us into unity from division; he gathered, and does gather, and will gather, the parts of Dionysos — for we are cut apart much as he was by our interactions with the world — for burial, enabling a fresh resurrection. It is Apollon who provides purification, and it is Apollon who has the Demiurgic knowledge of what each of us can do to be in the best state possible, as shown by his holy seat at the Oracle of Delphi and how he forcefully presides over oracles. It is Apollon who gazes down at the ocean of generation from his summit, filled with care for all that is here in generation — not only those who are his, for none of the Gods is jealous, and his compassion does not discriminate. It is Apollon who brings us to the hard things we need to learn for our purification, who lovingly teaches us not to fear what is lightless and the monsters within it; it is Apollon who soothes our broken hearts. He is the singularity at the heart of the black hole and the dazzling cascade of light-filled spacetime warping and dissipating. He is the harmonious popping of particles into and out of existence in what we think is the vacuum. He is the guiding hand of our embodiment, the one who has given our solar system the harmony it needs in order to be the best place for us qua Homo sapiens to be and grow. And it is thinking of Apollon and his vivid harmony, his cutting truth, and his unutterable beauty, who is the key to thinking about compassion meditation in a Platonizing context, or in a polytheistic one at all.

What is the root of compassion contemplation/meditation?

I began with Apollon because he is the God to whom I have tacitly dedicated my own compassion practice — in several prayer contexts, I have had deep experiences in this respect. There are no words to describe how good the God has been in that regard. However, we can think of any God, broadly speaking, for one key reason: The root of compassion meditation is practicing a state of receptivity for divine providence and cultivating an inner state that places oneself in the “flow” of providential care for all beings everywhere. It cultivates the divine life in us.

From a Platonizing lens, the pious way to think of the Gods is by knowing that they are (t)here; understanding that they care about all of us; and rejecting the idea that they are whimsical and can be swayed by fancy offerings as if they were corrupt officials. An objection sometimes voiced to this is related to the outer face of the myths, many of which are violent, and this remains a really big barrier today for people when they try to worship the Gods. All of the myths that have the Gods portrayed as doing something else are using mystic language to get at something that can only truly be explained through exegesis. Plato himself tried to do better than the traditional myths insofar as was possible, and his myths are frequently less morally daunting. Here is something from Proclus that compares Plato’s methods to the traditional myths:

While the theologians who say what they say in secret discourse conceive of marriages and births among the Gods through which they hint at the concordant partnerships among the Gods in acts of engendering, Plato put mixtures and blendings into mythic discourse, adopting the kinds of being in place of seed, and their mixture in place of marriage.

Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book 5, 248.5-12, trans. Tarrant

I go into this a bit more in The Soul’s Inner Statues, but the deeply curious will want to read Proclus’ Essays 5 and 6 on the Republic (available in two different English translations), Sallust’s On the Gods and the World (Chapter 4), and Edward Butler’s post from a few years ago on how this exegesis works and a paper of his from 2005. Going forward, I am assuming that we are all on the same page about the Gods’ goodness.

So, back to this: The root of compassion meditation is practicing a state of receptivity for divine providence and cultivating an inner state that places oneself in the “flow” of providential care for all beings everywhere. One place we can look to for some justification for this is Plato’s Laws at 906b (in Book 10). This is the Schofield & Griffith translation.

The Gods are on our side — as also are the guardian spirits — and we in turn are the property of the Gods and guardian spirits. What is fatal for us is injustice, and arrogance allied to folly; our salvation is justice, and self-control allied to wisdom, and these are to be found dwelling in the living powers of the Gods — though they can also be seen dwelling in us, just a bit — or something very like them.

When Plato says that the Gods are on our side, he is referring to the providential activity of everyone ontologically prior to us in the metaphysical hierarchy. You can refer back to this post on divine seira for what that hierarchy looks like. The term “property” here is also referring back to where we are in the causal chain. Nowadays, given our sensitivity to vocabulary that evokes human trafficking, we would not say that someone is “owned” by a God or is that God’s property, but we can say that we are each suspended from a daimon (the daimon has a few souls that are under it) that is ultimately suspended from our leader-God. But in turn, all of the Gods are in each God, and all Gods are providential, so we can actually just say in a general sense that we are under the care and suspended from all of them. The second sentence in 906b has a lot going on in it (especially with that “fatal” bit — regardless of what’s in the Greek or not, we can think of fatal as fate-ish and also fatal as in perpetuating our cycle of suffering in our incarnations), but for the purposes of compassion meditation, let’s focus on how justice, self-control, and wisdom are found in “the living powers of the Gods” and that we also possess these.

Propositions 119 and 120 of the Elements of Theology (Proclus) provide some additional context here. I’m using the Dodds translation here — towards the end of the Prop. 119 discussion, Proclus says, “Neither their goodness nor their unity is a quality superadded upon other qualities; they are pure goodness, as they are pure unity.” (Note: the unity thing is related to the absolute individuals thing that a lot of Platonists talk about with respect to the henads and which has become much less taboo to discuss due to the efforts of Edward Butler.) Proposition 120 expands upon this in greater depth, so I’ll do a full quote-cite (capitalization of “God(s)” mine):

120. Every God embraces in [ler] substance the function of exercising providence towards the universe; and the primary providence resides in the Gods.

For all things else, being posterior to the Gods, exercise providence in virtue of divine compresence {def: existing together concurrently}, whereas the Gods do so by their very nature. For if the office distinctive of the providential character is the bestowal of good things upon the beings which are its objects, and if every God is an excellence (prop. 119), then either the Gods will communicate themselves to no recipient, and there will thus be nothing good in the secondary existences (whence should they procure participation of things good, if not from the principles which have these characters primitively?); or, if they communicate anything, what they communicate is good, and in this way they will exercise providence towards all things. Providence, then, resides primitively in the Gods. For indeed, where should an activity prior to Intelligence be found, if not in the principles above Being? And providence, as its name (pronoia) shows, is an activity prior to Intelligence (pro nou). In virtue of their being, then, and in virtue of being excellences, the Gods exercise providence towards all things, filling all with a goodness which is prior to Intelligence.

Note that “primitive” here has drifted a bit in usage since when Dodds was writing, so that should be interpreted in terms of their close proximity to the One, as everything that exists is less proximate to the One than they. So our object in compassion meditation is what I bolded — to imitate that filling of goodness insofar as souls like us are capable of it.

The soul’s happiest state is one in which it is not “happy” in the common sense (that feeling of elation we have), but one in which we are aligned with the Gods. We get out of our own way, and we extend their providential activity down here in the exact way we are meant to given where we are in the chain of being.

For this is the soul’s happiness: to be able to imitate its own god, to the extent of each person’s power, so long as [that person] lives life here [on earth] in an uncorrupted manner.

Hermias, On Plato Phaedrus, volume II, trans. Baltzly & Share, 198,30, brackets theirs

The imitation of our own God means coming into alignment of that overflow from them.

For it is the gods who radiate favour (kharis) to the entire cosmos and through favour and concord we are joined with the gods. {Plato} does not say favour [here] because the gods receive favour from us but because by worshipping the gods [and thereby] gratifying (kharizesthai) them, we are joined with the gods and made akin to them.

Hermias, On Plato Phaedrus, volume II, trans. Baltzly & Share, 216,25, hard and round brackets theirs, curly mine

This activation is theurgic. Proclus, in the Platonic Theology, even links this activity by which we join ourselves to the Gods to “faith” — which, he is apt to point out, is not the haphazard faith we tend to have in mind when using that word. Rather, faith is a way of talking about that certainty and that unity deep within; it “surpasses all knowledge, and according to the highest union conjoins secondary with first natures”; it is “uniform and quiet, being perfectly established in the port of goodness” (Book I, ch. 25, trans. Taylor). Faith unites us to the Good, and it is how we establish ourselves in what comes before us (same section, same text):

[Faith] is, in short, the faith of the Gods, which ineffably unites all the genera of the Gods, of daemons, and of happy souls to the Good. For it is necessary to investigate the Good neither gnostically, nor imperfectly, but giving ourselves up to the divine light, and closing the eyes of the soul, after this manner to become established in the unknown and occult unity of beings. For such a kind of faith as this is more ancient than the gnostic energy, not in us only, but with the Gods themselves, and according to this all the Gods are united, and about one centre uniformly collect the whole of their powers and progressions.

And, additionally, the soul is raised to the Gods through love (Platonic Theology, Book 4, ch. 5) — a pressing and powerful love that is often displaced and confused by our material circumstances. This is why the Phaedrus is constructed the way it is, with the concept of a beloved transforming into a bhakti-style agalma of the God whom the beloved represents; and in the interpretation I give, the beloved should not be interpreted literally as falling in love with someone younger, but as any type of beloved activity that you find joy in. It all ultimately leads to a God if you manage your desires well and don’t let it take you down towards what Simplicius calls the yawning chasm of nonbeing somewhere or other in his commentary on Epictetus. (That’s why I sometimes take a jab at fandom — love of a franchise could actually bring someone closer to the Gods, but it is more likely to result in hyper-consumerism and appetitive indulgences that will not satisfy the soul due to how the hedonic treadmill works. I don’t actually think that liking something a lot is bad. I also have hobbies.)

Finally, I want to pull in a passage from the fragments on Iamblichus’ De Anima.

53. After the souls have been freed from generation, according to the ancients they administer the universe together with the gods, while according to the Platonists they contemplate the gods’ order. According to the former, in the same way they help the angels with the creation of the universe, while according to the latter they accompany them.

Finamore and Dillon clarify what Iamblichus means in a note in their commentary (p. 226):

Iamblichus may believe that such pure souls descend to the taxis of angels and aid them in ministering to the universe. In De Myst. 2.6, Iamblichus situates purified souls at this angelic level and gives them the role of raising mortal souls upwards toward the gods. This is not quite a demiurgic role, but one can see how angels and purified souls, by their very proximity to the gods, would come to be seen as “syn-demiurgic” in Iamblichus’ philosophy.

For Iamblichus, then, the disembodied life involves more than following in the god’s train, as suggested by Plato’s Phaedrus. The soul is actively involved in the divine activities of governance and creation. This new, active role is the final reward for souls of theurgists.

The two passages above about Iamblichus feed into what Chlup is discussing in Proclus: An Introduction regarding how Proclus views erōs and the way in which people who have made some amount of progress are to conduct themselves with regard to generation (section 8.1, if you have the book handy). Chlup brings together citations from Proclus’ Alcibiades I commentary, Timaeus commentary, and his writings on evils, and he cites one of the works on evils that I think is worth mentioning here (De Mal. 23.10-18):

For the primary good is not contemplation, intellective life, and knowledge, as someone has said somewhere. No, it is life in accordance with the divine intellect which consists, on the one hand, in comprehending the intelligibles through its own intellect, and, on the other, in encompassing the sensibles with the powers of [the circle of] difference and in giving even to these sensibles a portion of the goods from above. For that which is perfectly good possesses plenitude, not by the mere preservation of itself, but because it also desires, by its gift to others and through the ungrudging abundance of its activity, to benefit all things and make them similar to itself.

The bolded emphasis is mine because that is the section of the passage that most closely conveys what we’re talking about here with compassion.

So, hopefully, from all of the above, we’re on the same page about how this works and why compassion meditation is a useful way to go ahead. So let’s transition to talking about the practice itself.

How should one do this practice?

Lovingkindness and compassion practices come originally from Buddhism, and while I am proposing a Platonic version of this, it is important to be just and honor that — here’s the Wikipedia page on maitrī so you can familiarize yourself with its origins. Many self-help compassion and lovingkindness meditations, be they Buddhist or secular derivations of Buddhism, seem to start by focusing compassion at the self, then at others. Others focus on good works that one has done to come into a place of high self-worth. The exact techniques depend on what a meditation instructor wants to teach, and the type of lovingkindness practice also depends on the amount of time one has. Thus, one that is focused on feelings of lovingkindness may begin with the self; progress to person(s) we have positive feelings for; progress to people we’re neutral about; give us the challenge of giving lovingkindness to people we “find challenging”; and end with offering lovingkindness to all beings. That is a 15-minute meditation. A 5-minute one may compact it down into self, high-esteemed-others, low-esteemed-others, all beings, with very little time spent on each step.

If we want to focus on the Gods in a meditation like this, though, we need to start from the Gods, not ourselves. This could mean modifying the focal points we use in a guided meditation … or we could choose to do our own meditation solo — with a timer or with the “unguided” or bell-timed versions of a meditation app, depending on how much we think we need to keep on track.

It is important to either focus on (a) one deity or (b) a unified set of deities like the Muses or Norns or what have you or (c) all of the Gods, without distinction. The reason for doing it this way is that focusing one’s attention in a divided manner will cause divisive feedback within the psukhe, and we want to be as unified as possible when employing this theurgic practice in imitation of the absolute unities/individuals who are the Gods. The best way to start with a God is to pray before the meditation begins. This could be simple — I have an icon of Apollon at meditation-gaze height and give him a nod/brief expression of welcome before beginning a meditation — or you can make a full-on ritual of it, as I do in the brief meditation I do after a particularly potent ritual sequence because the connection and union with the Gods is the apex of it, and the compassion practice amplifies that.

You may also want to read one of the passages quoted in this post or another passage, depending on which Gods you worship and the philosophical school you are in. This can help to center the mind. Start out by focusing on the breath, and then start to contemplate the God, unified set of Gods, or all of the Gods as a set — as mentioned above, make sure that whatever you pick is a single focal point. Envision love, safety, belonging, and absolute care coming from lim/them — a love with no strings attached, that will always advocate for what is best for us and the universe, even when we are not in the space to do what is best for ourselves. Ask, or visualize, this love being given to oneself. You may want to repeat some affirmations here related to safety, being loved, belonging, having the power to overcome your faults, and so on.

Once you do that, focus on either a person or a set of people whom you hold in high esteem (friends, teachers, your mom, someone who held the door for you, &c.), and feel in your heart the love the Gods have for them. Do the same with people you feel neutral about (this is always hard for me), and then do this for someone or someone(s) you experience challenges with. Because I know the polytheist community intersects with the occultists and magically-inclined, and there have been some remarkable fallouts, this is the place where the challenge might be “which person do I even begin with.” Stick to whoever comes to mind first. Keep in mind that people who have very strong warding practices may be more difficult to send lovingkindness towards, especially if you’re not on the best terms with them, but that is OK. The Gods are everywhere, and this is probably just going to scrub out whatever discord is in you, like a Brita filter — they’ll get the compassion, not the junk. If you’ve chosen someone(s) who is/are particularly challenging, take a page out of the Tibetan Buddhist guru meditation practice. First think of the flaws in that person that you know about (and it’s important to just stick to what’s observed, not speculated; Simplicius tells us as much when he advises us on how to be just in our judgments about others), and then their strengths, and finally think of how much care and love the Gods have for them and how we will all be guided by the Gods where we need to go. If it’s a teacher, when thinking of that person’s strengths, be sure to consider all of the ways in which people have been impacted positively by them and the sacrifices they have made for what is good. (This practice is how I’ve come to understand that many flawed decisions made by our elders are actually coming from the shadow of their strengths. I can be less reactive and judgmental and more constructive in how I respond. This is the Tibetan guru meditation, and it can be done while thinking of anyone who is in an instructor of some kind, not just someone you’re loyal to via initiation, either alone or as a modified version integrated into a routine compassion meditation practice.) While I do not practice magic, I know from experience that lovingkindness — if you are doing it from a pure heart and not with secret malice — can also dispel negativity and harmful intent from others. The way you develop a pure heart is to completely give yourself over to the experience of lovingkindness and providential love in the section of the meditation on the God and by, after the meditation ends, reflecting on how to be constructive towards others and not destructive — how to pursue unity, not division, while at the same time working towards justice. The impure cannot approach the pure.

I usually end this meditation by thinking of either a specific community of people or all beings everywhere. “All beings everywhere” for me means dropping out of subjectivity and an Earth-centric focus. I envision the Gods’ love for all of the planets, both those in our solar system and elsewhere, their moons, and ultimately for all of the galaxies and the lives within them that make up the cosmic web.

While it usually doesn’t have a high level of intensity, this is the part of the meditation that has often led to the most profound emotions of love and sorrow when I do it. It’s actually making me tear up writing about this. Billionaires seem to think that they need to spend a fortune going into space to develop a perspective that is available to anyone who simply opens themselves up to the Gods and allows the beauty of existence to slip in. I know that other species are experiencing challenges just as dire as ours on their own worlds, whereas others are comparatively well off. I know that the telos of all that is and all that is becoming is bigger than just us here on Earth, and I know the tragic beauty of what we have done to ourselves with iconoclasm that has ultimately led to trying to break the most beautiful agalma of the Gods that is our Earth. And then there is the division among ourselves as a species that is ripping us all apart because we refuse to see the humanity in one another or stop the nonsense of thinking some people are better than others. And this deep understanding can be very sad. But in the middle of that sadness is a core of love and care, and within the love and care there is agency and a desire to have what is best for all of us, and within the love and care is the Lord of Abiding Compassion, Apollon, and I know that the Gods are wholly good. When experiencing this, I feel a profound need to expend more time and energy to make the world a better place, and I feel recharged and able to focus on pruning away excesses to focus on what matters.

Lord of Abiding Compassion

I offered the epithet Lord of Abiding Compassion to Apollon based on these experiences, and it is my personal experience that he does preside over compassion, especially in his focal mode as the reverting point within the elevating triad of Hermes, Aphrodite, and himself. It also has echoes of his position in the truth-bearing triad (Aletheia, Apollon, Helios), where he is the central, feminine/feminized point. In this aspect, he does remind me a lot of what I know about Kuan Yin from vague things in popular culture, although I do not possess a deep enough knowledge of her to say more. I wrote a poem in 2021 about Apollon’s role with respect to Dionysos that focuses on his compassion. It’s the place where this sense of him first surfaced in an intelligible way. In a mythic mode, the Gods tend to preside over opposites; and this perhaps is related to the warding from afar and distance that Apollon is said to have. He is both aloof and absolutely, intimately present. If you’re not sure which deity to start from with this practice, I recommend starting from him.

I hope that what I have written here has done justice to this practice in a Platonizing context, and I wish each and every one of you the best as you try it out.

4 thoughts on “Deity-Focused Compassion Meditation

  1. Like this article a great deal. Personally, I feel Apollo is one of the three deities to push me toward loving-kindness meditation. But without being a Platonist, I was pushed further to Eleos, deity of compassion in the Greek pantheon, offspring of Nyx and Erebus according to Hyginus Fabulae’s brief take on a theogony. The spiritual practice aspect of it probably is very aligned, but more from a Pythagorean/Empedocles/ Porphyry etc. angle. Still, a path heavily influenced by Apollo where I would use the epithet Kourotrophos for Apollo Kourotrophos’ interest. Nice to read something in the same headspace about compassion practice in Hellenic Polytheism from a slightly different approach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that’s so interesting! Thank you for sharing that about your practice, and I’m happy that someone else has been doing this with Apollon for a while. (BTW, I don’t consider myself a Hellenic Polytheist anymore — but I worship, for the most part, Greek Gods. Call me a polytheist or theist.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As Antinous the Navigator’s season of the year begins today, and that aspect of Him has its highest expression in His syncretism with Apollon (at least in my general practice…though not exclusively so!), this is a very relevant thing to think about for today…and in relation to what else I’ve been experiencing recently. Thanks so much for this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s