The Science & Technology of Liberation Classified

Before a person can decide what kind of meditation is best for her, she must have at least a rough idea of what kinds of meditation there are and how they differ from one another. Such knowledge is not easy to acquire, given the semi-secret nature of many contemplative lineages, the unfamiliar cultural matrix in which teachings on meditation are often imbedded, and the lack of adequate terminology for talking about mental states and processes. On top of that, personal accounts of the varieties of contemplative experience are notoriously idiosyncratic.


How, then, can we get our bearings in this strange land? Let us begin by looking at how one religious tradition, Buddhism, classifies the many contemplative exercises that are gathered under its capacious roof. My personal engagement with Buddhist theory and practice, over a span of forty years, allows me to say with some confidence that I am minimally qualified to talk about the matter. Yet the cultural edifice of Buddhism, built up over more than 2500 years, is so vast that no one can claim to be well acquainted with its every part. That in itself is a reason to exercise caution in the development of a method for discerning and describing the elements common to the various kinds, and the family groups to which they belong. As always in the case of taxonomically challenging fields of knowledge, the art lies in being just abstract and general enough to take the measure the whole, without diminishing any of the parts.


I will briefly describe a few of the ways in which Buddhists have classified the methods of mental development.


It is crucial to be aware from the outset that all types of Buddhist meditation, whatever their immediate result may be, are subordinate to the goal of attaining release from the discomfort of human existence. There are several ways in which the project of setting oneself free can be described, and we will review them in future entries. In whatever terms we choose to delineate the path, it culminates in a special kind of understanding about the nature of the arising of discomfort. The systematic contemplation of bodily sensations, hedonic tone, dispositions, and cognitive patterns is crucial to the arising of liberating wisdom. The exact details of the process will be discussed as we proceed. For now it is enough to note that the prime requisites of wisdom are tranquility and the insight which comes with a fully developed ability to apply mindfulness and comprehensive awareness. Here we meet with the first classification, namely, the division of methods into those that produce (or are primarily orientated to) calming, and those that produce insight.


As we consider the two types of meditation, i. e., calm-producing and insight-producing, bear in mind that while either of the two goals can be pursued separately, tranquility and insight are mutually supportive. Both deep understanding and unshakable calm are worth striving for in themselves. The goal of our practice is to become free from the domination of the three poisons—desire, aversion and delusion—and from attachment to “I, me and mine,” and insight is crucial for the realization of that freedom. However, the attainment of insight is extremely difficult for a person whose mind is chronically agitated.


Within each of these two fundamental categories, tradition recognizes a number of important distinctions and subtypes. The locus classicus for the enumeration of contemplative methods is a work by the fifth-century CE Sinhalese monk, Buddhaghosa. His Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a compendium of practical advice gleaned from what some scholars believe to be the earliest stratum of Buddhist scriptures. It is a work of astonishing brilliance, and it is rightly regarded as the crown jewel of the Theravada commentarial tradition. Composed a thousand years into the Buddha’s dispensation, it is still an excellent source of basic information.


Under the heading of tranquility-producing exercises, the Visuddhimagga lists 40 objects of contemplation. I will briefly list them below, with explanatory remarks where necessary. Note well that although they are given under the rubric of Calming, some of these exercises may also give rise to insight for those who undertake them in earnest and with and open and enquiring mind.


The first group is made up of ten wholes, or complete things (Pali kasina)—what a present-day psychologist might call gestalten. These are simple, concrete objects, clearly distinguishable from the background and used as the basis for visualization. They are (1) Earth, usually a clay-colored disc; (2) water in a small bowl; (3) fire, the flame of a candle or oil lamp; (4) air or wind, the smoke rising from incense or the movement of clouds, banners, leaves, etc. (5) blue or green, (6) yellow, (7) red, (8) white, all colored discs; (9) enclosed space, a container of any kind; (10) bright light, such as full sunlight upon a wall. The task here is to look at the thing for a while, then close the eyes and attempt to create a mental image of that thing. In the course of gradually refining and strengthening the vividness of the eidetic image or imaginative construct, the mind settles down, thoughts gradually become weaker, and the trainee enters the higher reaches of contemplative absorption (jhāna). A good example of the kasina in Japanese esoteric Buddhism is the contemplation of the lunar disc and A-syllable letter, known to students of mikkyo as gachirin-kan and aji-kan.


Ten repulsive objects are listed as follows: (1) a bloated corpse; (2) a discolored corpse; (3) a festering or oozing corpse; (4) a corpse with cracked flesh; (5) a corpse that has been gnawed by animals; (6) a corpse that had been dismembered; (7) a corpse that has been hacked to pieces and its parts scattered about; (8) a bleeding corpse; (9) a corpse that is full of maggots; (10) a skeleton.


The ten recollections are divided into three groups. The first is recollection of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The second group comprises recalling the virtues of moral self-restraint and generosity, and contemplating rebirth in the realm of the gods as an incentive to practice in this life. The third group is mindful recollection of the body, of death, of breathing in and out, and of ultimate peace.


Cultivation of the four so-called Abodes of Brahman, i. e., the positive social emotions, constitutes the next group. The Illimitables, as they are also called, are friendliness or loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.


The four formless states—infinite space, infinite consciousness, infinite nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception—are not so much objects of contemplation as altered states that occur when the trainee’s concentration or absorption intensifies so much that the nominal object dissolves and is forgotten, leaving only a residuum of mental/neural activity.


The perception of food as disgusting is achieved by a method that is a variant of Setting up Mindfullness (or recollection), the Buddha’s core teaching on meditation, which we will examine in the next section. It entails closely attending to the process of eating—lifting and lowering the hand, opening and closing the mouth, moving the tongue, chewing, swallowing—without interruption for the whole of the meal, every meal of every day until your teacher tells you to stop. I was given this exercise as part of my basic training in the forest tradition and I can promise you that if you practice it diligently for a month you will come to feel that eating is more trouble than it’s worth. Still later you will pass beyond that feeling to a state of neutrality with regard to nourishment.


The last of the forty topics is the analysis of the human organism as it exemplifies the first four of the Great Elements, earth, water, fire and wind. This exercise not only increases calm through concentration but also promotes detachment with respect to one’s own body and the bodies of others by drawing attention to the body’s compound and therefore impermanent nature, as well as its repulsive aspects.


So much for the 40 objects of contemplation. The list is handy for reference but tells us almost nothing about how the various objects are used, beyond the belief that the systematic contemplation of any one of them is more likely to yield tranquility than insight.


There is another traditional way to view the field of personal training as a whole. The path of practice has long been divided into three parts, that is, moral development, mental-emotional development and intellectual development, also known as the Three Modes of Training in Conduct, Samādhi and Wisdom. The first is concerned with the discipline of bodily activity, the second with discipline of the will and moods, and the third with discipline of viewpoint and understanding.

Sensations & the Sensorium

The realm of sensation comprises six familiar kinds of phenomena and a few more that often go unnoticed. Each has characteristic qualities that make it possible to distinguish one kind of sensation from the others. For the novice as well as the experienced contemplative it is fascinating and useful to investigate the senses. Let us look at the six primary modes of sensation in turn.

  1. The field of visual sensation is more or less round, highly detailed at the center, which corresponds to the fovea centralis of the retina, and more or less coarse everywhere else. Although the detection of color, edges, texture, movement, distance, dark/light gradation, etc., are functions of sight that are processed in separate areas of the brain, the visual field nevertheless appears as a collection of recognizable entities. Visual perception is often accompanied by the strong sense of an observer who looks out at the world from a position somewhere behind the eyes. That illusion is probably due to the perception of depth that results from binocular vision. The sensory field of sight seems to be outside the body, as compared with the other sensory fields that are felt to be on or in it. This phenomenon sheds light on the tendency to locate oneself (much the time) within the body.
  1. Audition seems to occur for the most part in the vicinity of the ears although attention and imagination will often “move” in the apparent direction of the sound.
  1. Odors are sensed in the nose, and
  1. Flavors on the tongue.
  1. Tactile sensations, which include temperature, pain, itching, and various signals originating in the viscera, seem to be within or distributed over the surface of the body. Other sensory phenomena, such as balance, and the mapping of the body’s parts in relation to each other and the whole in relation to objects in the environment, are seldom even noticed in the course of everyday life.
  1. Thoughts, feelings, judgements, etc., may or may not have an apparent or putative location. (The conventions of folk-topography have them mostly in the head, sometimes in the heart, depending upon cultural norms). Verbalized thought often seems to arise, as represented audition, at an inner “ear.” Certain kinds of thoughts will be accompanied by the mental equivalent of images or sounds. Represented flavors and odors are less common.

six senses ruler

These, then, are the principal means by which we gather information about the environment and our own bodies. But whatever the actual number of senses we may count as contributing to a given moment of experience, the raw data is so great and so diverse that if it were to be taken as a whole, it would be unintelligible. Before that data can be of use to us, impulses originating in the sense-receptors will be shunted about the nervous system, often by multiple pathways, and processed in various ways before they issue in behavior or cognitive events.

Sensory perception is highly organized, and that is the oddest and most interesting thing about it. All six of these modes of sensation occur simultaneously, although it is moot whether one is ever aware of all six with true simultaneity. We are able to distinguish each of the sensory modes from all the others. More wonderful yet, we do not perceive a vast field of chaotic, intermixed sensory phenomena, nor unidentifiable blobs or clusters of visual, auditory, and tactile sensation. We perceive wholes. We perceive things. By the time data of the senses are integrated—and it is a very short time—they have undergone filtering, sorting, pattern recognition and completion, comparison, and labeling, so that we “instantly” recognize them for what they are, except on rare occasions such as when we are suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.

Some of the processes that allow us to recognize things, as opposed to merely sensing them, are the results of evolution, others of learning. They are currently the objects of study by psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists. We meditators can fruitfully study them “from the phenomenal side,” as some philosophers would have it.

In “meditation” we can temporarily suspend or undo selected elements of that information-processing network. To put it another way, we train ourselves to disable the higher cognitive functions by increments, beginning with self-consciousness and working our way “down” through the various layers (about which more in future posts) until we are near to the sensory foundation. Then we simply (!) observe.

In the following posts I will describe a few exercises that helped me to get started in my exploration of this terrain.

Why Meditate?

There are several ways we might divide up the field of spiritual science and technology, and one way is according to primary interest. Is the trainee’s dominant aim know, to heal, to feel, or to act?

Depending upon the answer to that question, we can posit four main categories of motivation, namely, the Gnostic, the Therapeutic, the Hedonistic, and the Magical.

Edgar Ende, Die Wartenden

The Gnostic Path comes in two flavors, the Scientific/Philosphical and the Religious/Spiritual, and asks the following kinds of questions:

What is the nature of experience? How does my world come to be known?                                                (Epistemological)

Who or what am I? What is at the root of my sense-of-self? (Psychological)

What exists and what is ultimately real? (Ontological-Metaphysical)

Can I confirm my beliefs and/or the teachings of religious authorities?                                                        (Empirical-Mystical)

The process of investigation devolving from such questions as these is believed to lead to the condition known as enlightenment.

The Therapeutic Path has practical wisdom as its goal. It aims to realize one or more of the following conditions and capacities:

Peace of mind;

Improved mental acuity;

Management of self-hatred, guilt, stress, pain and/or phobias;

The overcoming of compulsions and/or addictions;

More skillful interpersonal and social relations;

Greater compassion, moral sensitivity, and rectitude.

The Hedonistic Path has amusement, pleasure, and entertainment as its goals, which may include the attainment of extraordinary bodily and mental states and visions. The hedonistic adept is a tourist of mental processes.

The Magical Path, or the Path of Power, is concerned with the acquisition of special abilities for purposes of control over the environment and other people.

There is a fifth path, the Path of Liberation. Its aim is nothing less than complete freedom from bodily and mental constraints. Whether or not the realization of that goal entails the permanent loss of consciousness and life itself is a matter of controversy among the several Buddhistic traditions.

Some of us are primarily motivated by the desire to more deeply understand the nature of self-reflexivity as well as the self and its experience. For us it is fair to say that the primary, overall purpose of our work is to find better ways of training ourselves to alter the quality of experience for the better, more or less at will, through systematic development of certain skills. One way of looking at the activities in which we are engaged is as an exploration of natural systems of biofeedback. Following both traditional and experimental instructional protocols, we discover many interesting things about how the mind works, how experience presents itself, how the various psychophysical faculties and their functions contribute to building and maintaining the sense of self.

Getting a Handle on It

We have already made note of the fact that methods of “meditation” vary according to the aim, goal or purpose of a person’s training. Moreover, the various practices can be more or less suitable depending on the character or personality type of the individual being trained. Within a single contemplative tradition there may be several fundamentally different approaches and dozens of variations. In Buddhism, for example, lengthy books have been devoted to outlining the scope of contemplative activity and sketching the many kinds of exercises performed by monks and householders within a single school.

A given person’s meditation practice can be religious or secular, a temporary expedient or a lifetime commitment. We are not forced to choose between one kind of practice and another, one set of motives and another. But it is crucial to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At one end of the motivational continuum, the bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, is propelled along the path by the aspiration to fully awaken for the sake of all sentient beings. That resolve is called bodhicitta, the wholehearted commitment to the task of waking up. In mythic terms the project is described as taking an astronomical number of lifetimes to complete. It is not for everyone.

Another sort of person will forego nirvana in favor of samsara with the maximum upgrade. The stressed-out middle manager, for instance, may take up the practice of mindfulness as way of better coping with increased responsibilities and a deflating salary. There is nothing wrong with the decision to settle for less than perfect Buddhahood, provided you are honest about it. The difficulty with striving for the ultimate goal is, of course, that until the trainee realizes for herself knowledge of a very rare kind, she has only the most general and abstract idea of what lies at the end of the path. Not everybody knows what Enlightenment is, wants it, or even believes in the possibility of it. It may seem prudent to reserve judgment in the matter. While the jury is out, there is a lot you can do with meditation to make the problems of everyday life less painful, your behavior less driven, and your moment-to-moment experience more interesting. The panoply of methods is large. There is at least one kind of contemplative exercise for everyone.

Rocks lagoon

Each of the world’s cultural traditions embraces and combines in various ways three distinct approaches to spiritual practice that correspond to three basic attitudes to the problem of life. These three approaches are (1) striving for control of nature through technology, art, and/or magic, (2) striving for self-control, and (3) not striving at all. Each of these three tendencies has its exemplars in religion. The ritualistic aspects of Daoism, Veda, and tantra fall into the first category. Early Buddhism belongs to the second, along with disciplines such as Loyola’s Exercises and most of the varieties of yoga. Latter-day Pure Land teachings go into the third category, together with bhakti-yoga, Islam, contemplative Daoism and Dogen’s “zazen.” A healthy spirituality blends two or more of these tendencies, and we could probably identify types of “spiritual” persons based on the degree to which one or another is dominant.

Of the many factors that motivate people to take up meditation, the most common are probably curiosity; desire to experience altered states of consciousness; the acquisition of power over nature and/or other people; and the desire for inner peace. Among additional reasons to meditate are what might be thought of as subsidiary goals and benefits, of which the following are the most salient:

  1. increased control of psycho-physiological processes, such as respiration, heartbeat and blood pressure, leading to
  2. bodily and mental refreshment through rest, relaxation and reduced stress;
  3. improved performance of everyday tasks due to greater mental stability and acuity; and
  4. better relations with people.

There are many good reasons to take up meditation and few bad ones. Even at entry level the practice of mindful attention and clear comprehension can help us to avoid toxic states of mind—greed, aversion and delusion in the multitude of forms that give rise to human suffering. To the extent that the practice of meditation leads to wholesome states of mind, then any reason to meditate is a good one.

What Is Meditation? (O1)

You are thinking about taking up meditation because you have heard that it can enable people to manage stress, aggression and pain more easily; or because you believe it can deepen your understanding of yourself and life; or because you desire to gain access to a realm of “extra-sensory” experience and altered states of consciousness; or because you wish to become a better person; or because according to esoteric tradition the practice of meditation confers paranormal powers. Or, perhaps, you are one of a very small number of human beings who genuinely aspire to attain nirvana, the condition of being free from all attachments whatsoever. And those are only the more respectable reasons for meditating.


A plethora of motives for beginning the practice of meditation has, over the centuries, generated a diversity of methods. Each of the goals listed above requires a slightly different approach. Yet the means employed to reach them share certain common features. They all require a modicum of sustained attention, the ability to stay on task, and a clear understanding of the particular project in which the trainee is engaged. Developing each of those capacities to the requisite degree is a preliminary discipline in itself.

Because the word “meditation” has come to designate all such activities, including methods whose practitioners insist that they are not practices, it is a term both convenient and dangerous. As it happens, the differences among the various kinds of meditation are as important as the similarities. To remain ignorant of them is to risk following a path that cannot take you to your chosen destination. That is true even if you have no destination in mind.

Therefore, the first task is to get an overview of the terrain. Of necessity I will have to define a lot of words, in part because ordinary language tends to obscure rather than illuminate this field, and in part because clear writing on the subject in English is as yet relatively scant. We are only just beginning to develop a vocabulary specific to the description of self-reflexive mental processes. There is bound to be a lot of groping for words, and it may even be necessary to make up a term or two along the way.

The Indic word used by Buddhists when they are talking about “meditation” is bhāvanā. It means roughly the same as the English words “development” and “cultivation.” It applies to the whole panoply of mental faculties, in all possible combinations, from the most ordinary to those that are rarely exercised in the course of daily life. As we shall see, a great many things fall under that rubric. We will make a start at sorting them out in a future entry.