Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Guided Meditation", Hypnosis, and, Sitting and Forgetting

I sometimes go to "meditation" sessions organised by various religious groups and I am often appalled by the confused ideas people have about "meditation". One of the things that especially bugs me is what goes by the name "guided meditation".

For those of you who have not heard of this, it consists of people sitting and relaxing while a group leader narrates some sort of scenario to the people sitting and relaxing. Sometimes it involves getting people to visualise breathing in "white energy" and breathing out "black energy". At other times it involves visualising a walk with Jesus. The last time I was at one of these things, it was suggested that we feel some "loving energy" go from our hearts into the earth---in order to heal it. (There was an environmental theme to the church service that week.)

Several things disturb me about this activity.

First of all, it is based on a world-view that seems to accept the existence of a dangerous type of self-delusion. That is, that our personal emotional states have some direct impact on the physical world around us. The problem with this idea is that it is manifestly false. Contrary to the New Testament, faith cannot directly move a physical mountain. Nor can it fix a flat tire or a broken leg. And it most certainly is not going to end global climate change!

What it can do is get an individual or a group of people to work on a specific task that might seem beyond their ability. Faith can inspire a nation to work together and then they can move mountains. The evidence for this is all around us---from the pyramids of Giza and Central America to the cathedrals of Europe.

The problem is when people confuse these two things and substitute the former for the latter. It is one thing to share a vision of a better world and let that inspire an individual or community to work at some great goal. It is another altogether to suggest that having the vision is some sort of action in and of itself. The Notre Dame cathedral was built, in a sense, by faith. But it was also build by the hard work of hundreds of masons working over generations.

And this raises another of the problems with guided meditations. They usually suggest that people develop their faith without bothering to explain what exactly people are supposed to have faith in. This means that pretty much the entire edifice of Eastern religious wisdom gets left behind in favour of some sort of vague "positive think" spirituality that has more in common with Amway than the Dao or eightfold path.

Most of the time this boils down to some sort of vacuous version of "love conquers all". This invariably means that all people have to do is experience a specific type of emotion as much of the time as possible, and avoid anything that might be "negative", that the world will spontaneously become a better place. The practical result is a person who refuses to do any of the heavy lifting required for social transformation---which invariably involves nasty stuff like debate and struggle.

At worst, this sort of things results in some sort of guru worship or some other form of abuse of the self by the person behind the calm voice offering instruction.

This raises the last thing that really disturbs me about this practise: it seems to be not a heck of a lot different than hypnosis.

The popular notion about hypnosis is that some sort of mysterious power allows someone to "put" someone else into a "trance" that then allows the hypnotist to force them to do things that they would never have been able to do otherwise. My understanding is that this is a completely false picture. Instead, what seems to happen is that the "hypnosis experience" is a sort of social role that individuals can enter into and which allows them to loosen up the conventions that restrict the way people allow themselves to act.

When a stage hypnotist, therefore, gets someone to cluck like a chicken, he is not putting a person into a trance and getting him to actually become a chicken. Instead, he is convincing the person that he is now "hypnotised" and a "hypnotised" person clucks like a chicken when he is told that he is now a chicken. He is not entering a complex and new state of poultry-hood, however, he is just having the social convention of "act like a grown-up" removed and replaced by the social convention that now says "it's OK to pretend now, like you did when you were a child".

In the same way, when a hypnotist tells someone to "release a blocked memory", they are telling the subject that "it's OK to fantasise now". (Hence all the horrible stories of people convicted of ritual Satanic abuse---even when no physical evidence exists to support the victim statements.)

This is not to say that hypnosis is a bogus phenomenon. It actually exists, and it has significant value in some situations. The problem comes from people who come to it with a naive psychological world view that assumes that each of us is some sort of Cartesian individual mind totally isolated from everyone else in the world. Instead, a more nuanced approach is to understand that each of us lives in a cultural context where the way we think, talk and experience the world around us is mediated by the set of rules that we learned when we were very young and are still learning every moment of our lives. People get "hung up" by the way their cultural complexes influence their internal life. The ability to enter into the "hypnotic subculture" often allows people a way of "rebooting" their lives by letting them find a culturally safe way of redefining who they are.

From a meditative point of view, however, the point of spiritual practice is not to sculpt our cultural conditioning into different forms. Instead, the job is to cut through it altogether in order to connect with the Truth. (Or at, least, get to a closer approximation of it.) This cultural conditioning is what the man who practices "sitting and forgetting" is supposed to be "forgetting". It is the Maya that the Hindu Yogi and the Buddhist nun are supposed to be cutting through. The realized man does not become so by having someone else insert some sort of vacuous statement about the need for "universal love", or "positive think", or "mind over matter" into his consciousness. He becomes enlightened by entering into the void that exists when we strip away all that social conditioning and see the world (and his being) as it truly is.


The Rambling Taoist said...

Interesting post. Your analysis makes sense to me, though I wouldn't know from personal experience because I've never been hypnotized nor participated in "group meditation".

Anonymous said...

I think one of the difficulties is that the word "meditation" in English is too broad. It can mean "thinking about" as in "A Meditaiton on Justice" (this was common in English of the 17th & 18th centuries). It can mean concentration. Or it can mean guided visualization, etc. In traditional Buddhism there are many terms describing mental cultivation: vipassana, dhyana, satipatthana, metta, etc. As the English speaking world becomes more familiar with interior practices my hope is that a vocabulary will emerge that more clearly differentiates what process is being engaged.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I think I'm making a stronger statement than "these people aren't using the right words to describe what they are doing". Instead, I'm saying "these people are doing something that has very little spiritual value".

I'm reading The Case for God by Karen Armstrong right now and I find that she seems to be making the same sorts of statements that I would on this subject. For example, she doesn't have anything good to say about spiritual practise that is hyper emotional in nature.