Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is Meditation?

In previous posts I've danced around this subject a fair amount without actually committing to a specific description or definition of what meditation really is. There are several reasons why I've been hesitant to do so, so I'll try to explain them before I get down to the issue at hand.

The Problem of Solipsism

"Solipsism" is the idea that ultimately we can never really get inside someone else's head. Rene Descartes illustrated this problem by making the paranoid suggestion that when we look out the window at a street scene we really have no way of knowing for sure that everyone else we are looking at is not some sort of mindless robot following the instructions of its maker. Without going that far, anyone who is trying to talk about the internal consciousness of another human being is forced to make at least a few "leaps of faith" since ultimately everything rests on the assumption that what happens in your mind is pretty much the same thing that is happening in mine.

A further complication is that even if we assume that everyone's internal consciousness is pretty much the same, it is very difficult to develop a language can clearly and precisely discuss what is happening in our minds.

The naive person may think that language isn't all that important, but they'd be wrong.

Just to illustrate how important this is, I have a neighbour who is a very skilled tradesman but who has a terrible time explaining things to people. I went to a building supply store with him once and he told me to go get a "jug" of expanding foam insulation. I looked and looked, and looked, but I couldn't find anything at all that looked like this. He started getting exasperated and eventually walked over himself and got the container, which instead looked like this.My neighbour is a really intelligent, well-read person, but he finds it very hard to express himself, which causes him problems when he is trying to explain things to people that they don't know much about. This is not a terribly rare thing amongst tradespeople, who I find often simply cannot explain what they do to lay people.

My confusion about what exactly a "jug" of expanding foam insulation looks like was easily resolved by simply pointing to an example. This sort of similar situation rarely presents itself with regard to internal mental phenomena. What can be done, however, is for a skillful teacher to try and artificially create a mental state in his student so the student can then see it in context explained by the teacher. I suspect that many Zen koans are examples of this teaching process.

For example, there is a story of a Samurai warrior who met a Zen master and asked him if Heaven and Hell exist. The master responded by insulting the warrior, who grew angry to the point of drawing his sword. At this point the master said "now open the gates of Hell". The warrior thought about this, and getting the point smiled and put his weapon back in its sheath. At this point the master commented "now open the gates of Heaven."

The Problem of Obscure Language

Another issue that needs to be remembered when we discuss meditation is that spiritual traditions have all grown out of cultures that are radically different both from each other and also the modern age. All the spiritual seekers in those cultures were forced---by the problem of solipsism---to use metaphors to point towards their very personal experience. That is to say, since they couldn't point to an object or process in the mind in order to describe something spiritual, they were forced to use analogies from the world around them.

And the metaphors these people used have tended to come directly from their religious traditions, which is hardly surprising since most of them were ordained monks. Even more confusing, most of the scholars who have translated their writings have been people who were not ordained into the same religious tradition, and who have devoted their lives to learning how to do scholarly translations---not follow a spiritual practice. As a result, the writings that they have left behind---and the translations that have been made of them---are extremely hard for modern people to understand. For example, my understanding from a lifetime of study is that the following all refer to the same key mental entity/state: "The One" (Daoist), "The Buddha Mind" (Buddhist), "The Christ Within" (Christian), and, "The Atman" (Hindu). The question for the naive reader is what exactly do these terms mean to you?

The Different Dimensions of Meditation

Because of the problems of solipsism and obscure language, the person who sets out to follow a spiritual path is stuck in a strange position. He may have a qualified teacher who is willing to help him along. But the teacher cannot readily explain to him what it is that he is supposed to be learning. That is because he cannot point towards a specific thing and say "this is the One", instead, all he can say is "you must hold onto the One" (or Buddha mind, Christ within, or Atman.) All the student can do is try to figure out exactly what this weird phrase refers to. So, one dimension of meditation is absorbing and learning a technical language about our internal mental processes, which will allow us to articulate both to ourselves and other practitioners what is going on in our minds.

At the same time that we are learning this new language, the seeker also has to develop a set of mental "muscles". That is to say, we have to learn not only that a specific type of mental activity exists, but that we can also learn to discipline and strengthen it. When we meditate we learn a great deal about boredom, sleepiness, depression, pain, the "internal dialogue" and so on. We don't only learn how to distinguish between them, we also learn how to control them. Eventually, some of them disappear. Others become constant companions that we can only force hold at bay for longer and longer periods of time.

These two issues would be difficult enough, but spirituality doesn't just deal with means to an obvious and simple end. People follow a spiritual practice because they are seeking answers to existential questions, such as "why do we exist?", "what is the right way to live our lives?" and so on. People who wrestle with these sorts of things are constantly re-assessing their life choices and a pretty significant life choice involves whether or not one follows a particular spiritual practice. So the practitioner is not only trying to develop a new language and strengthen her mental abilities, she is also constantly reassessing herself to see if the practice itself is worth pursuing. Any religious person who is serious about their path not only has to practice it with due diligence, she also has to submit the path itself to the same sort of rigorous examination that she is putting every other part of her life through.

Each one of these three dimensions is fraught with peril. People get tripped-up on language all the time, which can cause students to follow blind paths because they simply didn't understand what they were instructed to do. The discipline of developing the mind is also problematic, because the thing being struggled with is the same thing that you are strengthening. This means that at the moment when someone believes that they have finally gained the upper hand in the struggle with the distractions, base instincts and delusions of their mind, it can turn out that they suffer their final surrender to it! (I think that this explains why so many teachers with real attainment end up abusing their positions of trust.) And people can invest so much emotion, value and energy into a specific religious practice that they will cling to it long, long after it has proven itself to be an obstacle instead of a benefit. (And this is why so many reasonable people allow themselves to be take advantage of by those teachers who betray their positions of trust.)

A Definition of "Meditation"

At this point I will finally step out on a limb and offer my definition. Meditation is the process whereby we gain increasing awareness of our awareness.

This formulation is cribbed from Rudolph Steiner, whom I remember as having written about "thinking about thinking", which is one of those statements that I have indeed spent a great deal of time thinking about. But I have some concerns about what the word "think" really means. As a result, I'm happier with the term "aware", which I believe is a bit more immediately obvious and therefore easier to understand. In other words, the process of meditating is learning to be aware of how your mind operates.

If you put in your time trying to be aware of your awareness, you will notice some pretty interesting things. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, we live our lives as individual "islands" of self-awareness where whatever continuity we have with our past exists only as ghostly memories---which resemble fictions more than reality. This is a point that the philosopher David Hume noticed back in the 18th century. It is also a key concept in Buddhist psychology, known as "anatta". Both Hume and the Buddhists came to this conclusion through the process of careful self-examination of their consciousness, although one cannot think of much larger a cultural divide than between an Enlightenment philosopher and an ancient Indian mystic. Another example that I mentioned in a previous post refers to general rules by which we grow in insight. In the case of Ignatian spiritual practice, through careful analysis the Jesuits have realized that there seems to be a relationship between depression and spiritual growth, or as their confusing language would describe it "desolation" and "consolation". There are other insights beyond these, and they continue to deepen the longer you work at your meditative practice. Learning from them---and changing your life as a result---is why we pursue this path.

The process of meditating, therefore, is that of carefully observing your awareness in order to understand the way it operates. It has the odd characteristic, however, of being such a personal process that you literally can only "learn by doing". That is, no matter how carefully you read books on the subject, you cannot really understand it unless you make the effort to follow in the path of others and put your time into carefully observing yourself. As such, it is much more of an art or craft than it is a science. No doubt many people of deep attainment are like my neighbour the carpenter---unable to express what they do to anyone else. (Indeed, I believe that I have a specific gift in being able to express this sort of thing more clearly than the vast majority of other practitioners, which is why I write this blog.)


Paul said...

Meditation seems to be like tennis or painting in that it is mainly learned from practice -- and perhaps ideally with the help of a coach or instructor. I wonder then if there are some people who have more talent -- that is, more potential -- for it than others do? After all, there are people who have more talent for tennis or painting than others. Why not someone with more talent for meditation than others have? Just curious.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I think your question assumes that meditation is an end in itself (i.e. like tennis and painting.) But the definition that I outlined in my post says that meditation is a means to an end, namely insight.

In a daoist teaching book there is an incident where a study is sitting under a bridge in a lotus posture meditating. A man comes over with a terra cotta tile and starts polishing it. Eventually the student asks him what he is doing. "I'm making a mirror", at which point the student says "no matter how much you polish that stone, it will never be a mirror." The man then said, "and no matter how much you sit in meditation, it will not make you a realized man." At this point the man disappeared and the student realised he had been given a lesson by an immortal.

This isn't to say that meditation has no value, or even that it isn't necessary. But it isn't sufficient. This is a significant issue amongst North American Buddhists, most of whom have reduced the old eight-fold path of Buddhism into one thing only: meditation. Now that Daoism is begining to take off, it would be nice if it manages to escape making the same mistake. (If only so it can make an entirely new one.)

Paul said...

Thank you for a very informative answer!

LizardTail said...

I'm curious to know if you ever heard about the practice of recapitulation proposed by controversial carlos castaneda, it sounds just like your post on observing the self, which in turn would increase the level of personal awareness. What are you thoughts on this?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, I have read most of the books by Castaneda. Since he was exposed as a fake, I haven't paid much attention to him. Having said that, I think that a lot of the ideas in his books have merit, but more because they are copied from genuine traditions rather than because he understood them. (A Sufi aphorism says that a pitcher can carry water without taking a drink.)

From my reading, I think that "recapitulation" is a part of just about all religious traditions. Which is not to say that it is a core part of all traditions, but rather that in most of them there have been some teachers who did something similar. Even in the face of solipicism, people seem to be pretty much the same everywhere and in all times.