Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Dangers of Meditation

I rarely hear people mention that there are dangers associated with meditation and spirituality in general, but I have come to the conclusion that there are genuine risks associated with spiritual practice. I don't want to blow them up beyond their importance, but I think that it is important to know that they exist.

I've come to this conclusion partly from observing others directly, partly from reading on the subject and partly from self-observation.

Over the years, I've watched some pretty wild psycho-dramas unfold amongst people who are engaged in spiritual practices. One of the most bizarre involved a conflict between a Daoist priest and martial arts instructor that eventually resulted in an official complaint complaint being lodged with the police about "grand theft temple treasure"----for a framed poster that you can buy in China town for ten bucks. (I'm sure there were amusing anecdotes told in the coffee room of the police station.) In a more serious vein, many are the tales of broken hearts from the sexual misconduct of North American Buddhist teachers, at least one of which became a fairly well-known book: Shoes Outside the Door.

On a more serious note, I've noticed a couple folks who went "over the deep end" while obsessing about religion. I suspect that these folks had problems that existed long before they became involved in spiritual practice, but contrary to what some people might think, spirituality seems to have not only not helped these folks, it may have helped induce the madness that descended upon them. One person I know, for example, was very religious and went to the point of living in a Catholic intentional community. She had to give all of that up though, as it became clear to both her and her therapists that the schizophrenia she began to manifest was tied to religious symbolism. (She related to me a memory of being in a mental hospital, tied up in a straight jacket, while nurses and porters held her down so a doctor could inject her with sedatives. At the time, she said she was convinced that she was Jesus Christ.) Heavily medicated, she now avoids any sort of religious involvement like the plague.

My personal experience is that any insights I have gained from the practice of meditation and contemplation have been paid for by the development of a strongly introspective character that isolates me from other people. Lately this separation was brought home to me when I took an acquaintance out to the local farmer's market. She was totally enthralled with every vendor and asked for free samples from each and everyone. All I could think about was the fact that every free sample came with a disposable plastic cup or spoon that was instantly tossed into the trash. Moreover, I noticed that she was totally oblivious to this---to me---obvious problem.

I wouldn't trade the insights and sensitivity that I have gained from the practice of Neidan, but it does come at the price of losing one's ability to totally lose oneself in the sorts of child-like pleasures of ordinary people. The problem isn't so much that I can no longer get involved in things and enjoy myself, its just that those things that I do enjoy are rarely the same things that the general public does, and vice versa. This creates a barrier between the introspective spiritual seeker and his neighbours. Of course, this phenomenon explains the tendency of spiritual seekers to become hermits,recluses, anchorites and monastics.

In a way, these issues are pretty much the same as those experienced by anyone who decides to live a "counter cultural" existence. Many of us know people who "dropped out" from mainstream society and in return mainstream society dropped onto them like an anvil. Most of this comes down to the fact that society "protects its own" and people who "follow the rules" tend to have a support system to help them get over the rough spots. I once had a high-school friend explain this to me by saying "If you just do what THEY want, life can be pretty sweet."

But once you decide to make your own rules, you have to assume more responsibility for your life.

Consider, if you will, someone who decides to be self-employed instead of working for a large business. It becomes the individual's responsibility to line up customers, deal with suppliers, find some way of dealing with downtime due to sickness, etc. In contrast, people who work in a large, unionized business only have to think about what would happen if they get laid off.

Take this one step further and try to live without the discipline of either customers or bosses (which amount to much the same thing), and you end up living an economic carnival ride. I have an acquaintance who did this sort of thing for years until he ended up at an advanced age spending a Canadian winter in an uninsulated summer trailor with nothing more to eat than half-rotten pumpkins. (He escaped that scenario by giving up his confirmed bachelorhood to get married to a woman of financial means.) Many folks following the same path end up in much worse straights---they live on the streets of our cities. Indeed, there is a very popular book and movie titled "Into the Wild" that chronicles the way the wilderness killed a young man who attempted to drop out of society and live as a wilderness hermit.

In its way, anyone who treads the path of internal alchemy---taijiquan, "sitting and forgetting", etc---is even more of a rebel than the counter-cultural type who tries to live without "the man" breathing down his neck. That is because he is casting a critical eye towards the way his mind operates and the deepest level of assumptions that govern his life.

And once you start to look deeply into how the mind operates, and seriously question all of our assumptions, we can end up falling down Alice's rabbit hole.

I've mentioned above about how several North American Buddhist teachers have been involved sexually with their students. This makes sense once you realize that a large part of what both teacher and student are doing is trying free themselves from their socially constructed sense of self through intense self-analysis. Becoming in tune with the "Buddha mind" and "seeing the face you presented before you were born" leaves the rules pounded into your head by the school nuns behind you. At that point, "there are no rules', and it is hardly surprising that this has tempted a lot of people into infidelity.

Oddly enough, the opposite result can also occur. If sitting and forgetting can free you of social constraints, the simple practice like "mindfulness" can create a whole new set of problems. If a person really gets into the habit of carefully observing each and every moment of her life, what happens to the joyful and spontaneous things? Sex can become impossible if you develop the habit of being completely aware of everything you do (this probably has something to do with the celibacy that most monastic traditions manifest.) Indeed, if you seek to leave the "animal" behind, it is hardly surprising that our animal instincts disappear.

As a result of learning these lessons, I've come to a few ideas about protection against the problems of spiritual practice. First of all, I don't encourage anyone to meditate, do martial arts, or anything else spiritual unless they have a pretty good grounding to their life. A steady job, a normal place to live, regular work habits, etc, are pretty good indications that someone is not going to go off the deep end. Secondly, if you do follow the path, it is really important to use routine and conventionality as "anchors" to keep you from flying off into the wild blue yonder. There is a reason why monastic institutions have such a love of order and ritual---it helps keep the number of monks who go crazy down to a bare minimum.

Ultimately, however, "yah pays your money, yah takes your chances". Society is quickly going to Hell in a handbasket and lots of conventional people live lives of total lunacy. People who pursue a spiritual path are adventurers seeking a better life, and anything worth having requires taking risks. Just don't forget that lots of adventurers end up freezing, starving or being eaten by cogars.

So be careful!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Negative Meditation

I've been rather coy about stating what meditation exactly is, and I'm going to continue in that vein for this post too. I will end up offering a definition, but I think that it might help make the one I eventually give a lot more intelligible if I continue to offer suggestions about what it isn't. This actually isn't a very odd way to pursue this issue, as it is a path that has been very well-trodden by others. In fact, it has a name of its own---the via negativa.

With that in mind, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that certain practices that people do not associate with meditation are actually forms of meditation---but ones that are harmful to those who practice them.

Video Games

A lot of people take exception to video games because they are often so violent. It might be that this is a problem, but the thing that I find most damaging about them is the way they draw in people's concentration to a tighter and tighter form of concentration, speed people's responses up, and, cause people to manifest stress.

I think that this happens because video games are a perfect "Skinner Teaching Machine". These sorts of mechanisms give anyone who plays the game immediate feedback about success or failure. They also immediately escalate in lockstep with a person's increased skill at playing the game. By doing both of these things, they speed up and intensify the player's concentration the same way an engine does when it has had its governor removed. In effect, the mind races faster and faster until it begins to fly apart.

I first noticed this phenomena when I was a student playing one of the very first video games: Space Invaders. I found that after playing the game for a while I would end up holding onto the joystick with the "grip of death" and by the end of some of the higher levels I was almost having heart palpitations. (The soundtrack had a beat that was just like a heartbeat that kept speeding up as you advanced in levels.)

Since then I've noticed similar problems with other games. A few years back I got a copy of Populous for my desktop computer. It is a "god" game instead of a first person shooter, so it involves a different type of concentration than Space Invaders, but I found that while I didn't end up tight and panting after playing it, I did find it incredibly addictive. Ultimately, I found my quality of life degrading yet I found it almost impossible to quit. I ended up having to break the CD that it ran off of in half in order to stop wasting hours of time playing it. (I have a younger friend who said that it spread like the flu through his residence when he was at university and wasted enormous amounts of time.)

I am including video games as a form of meditation because they are based upon developing a specific type of consciousness---which is a large part of meditation. But they accentuate a negative, obsessive form of concentration that is damaging both to the mind and body.

Commercial Television

Again, many people complain about television's content, but I am more concerned about its form. The problem is that television asks the viewer to become engaged with the programming but jarringly interrupts the narrative every ten minutes or so to put in advertisements that almost always a little louder and more manic than the actual programming. If a person chooses to pay attention to the show and try to watch and listen intently, the commercials are extremely jarring.

I remember reading a short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. where some misguided future government chose to homogenize people's abilities through various technical innovations. Dancers had to perform with weights tied to their legs and so on. People with very high IQs had to go through life with devices that attached headphones to their ears and which would randomly emit very loud noises. This startled the people and robbed these people of the ability to concentrate, thereby robbing them of the advantages of having more innate intelligence than the general public.

In a same way, I think that the commercial interruptions of commercial television damages a person's ability to concentrate and "get into" drama. I rarely watch tv any more and I have found that when I do it very quickly gives me a headache. I think that if anyone does watch a lot of tv, they will inevitably have to learn to not pay much attention to their surroundings or else suffer a similar problem. I suspect that some of the many people I meet who seem to have the attention span of a gnat have developed this as a response to watching too much television.

Black Berries and Cell Phones

Where I work all the middle managers have been given blackberries and are forced to constantly wear them so they can always be "on call". At risk of biting the hand that feeds me (RIM is just down the road and pays a lot of taxes that in turn support my job), I would argue that this is a very bad idea.

I rarely have a conversation with my boss where he doesn't have the vibration function go off on his blackberry and he has to interrupt what he is saying in order to respond to it. Almost invariably, it is an email---quite often spam. Either way, the poor man simply doesn't seem to have the time to create a whole idea without being interrupted.

This is not only a bad idea, but unnecessary. My boss is a very low level manager in a second-rate academic library at a not-quite first-rank university. There is absolutely nothing that happens in his work life that cannot wait until he checks his email or telephone answering machine.
It is just a question of status---his boss (and him, to be honest) want to think of themselves as being so important that they always need to be on call.

What is really bizarre, is how the university students have bought into cell phones. They constantly answer the darn things, even though it strikes me that university students are, as a class, the group of people who are the least likely to actually need to be chained to one of these things. Maybe they are cheaper than a land line, but surely they could turn the things off once in a while!

In my next post I'll talk about some non-meditation, meditation that is actually good for you.