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.

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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.

From time without beginning…

Can you remember the moment at which you became conscious? The day, the month, the year? I am speaking of being not merely sentient, but fully self-conscious, capable (in potential at least) of contemplating the fact of your own existence.

I can remember how it suddenly came upon me, when I was around ten years old; how it stunned me, the realization that I am not only aware but self-aware; that mine is a unique perspective; that my sense-of-self might be other than what it is; that it might not be at all! The thought was breathtaking. I was preoccupied with it for a long time, or so unreliable memory informs me.

In retrospect the fact of my coming-to-consciousness has certain curious implications, of which the most obvious is also the most startling, namely, that we are not always conscious. For I think it seems to us, much of the time, that I am conscious now, that I was conscious a moment ago (and yesterday), that I will be conscious an hour from now, and that I will continue to be conscious right up to the moment of death–or, as one might conceive of it, even beyond death. But, as we shall see,  there are many reasons to doubt that consciousness is continuous and much evidence that awareness, whatever it is, cannot possibly be what our way of talking about it suggests that we believe it to be.

The status of consciousness; the means by which we can explore, modify, and regulate it “internally”; the evidence of the senses, of the biological sciences, and of philosophy; all these–together with a record of our ongoing attempts to apply and understand the various contemplative disciplines–will be the stuff of this series.

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We cannot say with certainty where this story begins. The core teachings of the Buddha provide a valuable clue. Of the main families of Buddhistic teachings–Theravada, Mahayana, and Mantrayana–each has its own way of expressing the Buddha’s vision: that every phenomenon arises out of a flux of causes and conditions and returns thereto. Change and interdependence are paramount in this way of looking at the sensory world. All things depend upon other things for their existence and non-existence, and nothing is altogether separable from its milieu. Objects are properly viewed as events, and persons as processes. The unceasing alteration of the sensory realm has no discernible beginning. Consciousness, mind, and the idea of self emerge from the vast, starry depths of time and space. The universe blinks, looks around, and discovers itself.

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The discipline of maintaining a healthy and comfortable posture can be extended to the activities of standing, walking, and lying down.

Set aside a day, or part of a day, to spend in focusing attention and the other metal faculties upon the sensations and physiological processes of the body.

Take special care to monitor the qualities of spinal alignment, muscular tension, and breathing at frequent intervals.

As always, when distracted from your primary task by persistent thoughts or the demands of everyday life, gently return your attention to the sensations associated with structure, balance, relaxation, etc., as soon as you have noticed that the mind is wandering.

It can be instructive to keep a journal of such exercises as this so that in future you can assess their contribution to your overall understanding of contemplative practice.

On Posture (4)

Before we move on from this topic, let me add a few more thoughts by way of summing up.

The nervous system is the body’s primary mechanism for optimizing movement, and “mind” is a catch-all term for those of the brain’s multifarious communicative activities that we can know or infer. Once the decision to sit and immobilize the body has been made, the amount of sensory input falls off gradually. Merely by sitting still, signals from the environment and signals from within the organism itself are greatly reduced, and the volume of conscious perceptions continue to decrease by stages as the ability to remain focused on somatic processes improves. The bulk of what is experienced during quiet sitting comprises ambient noise, bodily sensations, and a range of unsolicited thoughts.

As the forgoing sketch of its components suggests, the regulation of posture, although fairly straightforward in method, is complex and rather subtle. It is fruitful and interesting because in order simply to sit up straight and relax we are required, first, to become aware of processes that are normally habitual and therefore unconscious and, second, to gain an extraordinary measure of sensitivity to and control over the disposition of the body in space.

That undertaking entails the gathering and processing of various kinds of sensory information from multiple sources and projecting them upon a conceptual-sensory map of the body. The range of data so processed includes inputs from the skin, from a great many muscle groups, and even from the viscera: pressure, tension, bodily orientation, and clusters of what psychologists call interocepts, signals that keep us informed of the status of the systems that regulate our physiological processes. In the early stages of practice we are sensitive to ordinary tactile sensation and the grosser proprioceptive phenomena. By degrees we become able to discern the slightest changes in heartbeat, rate of breathing, and bodily structure.

The development of posture is fundamental to the practice of seated meditation because by attending to the sensations and physiological activities of the body the trainee can come to see that one’s sense of bodily identity is constructed, variable, and transient. Liberating insights of this kind can arise without any special instruction in techniques of contemplation.

With the regular practice of quiet sitting, the trainee can experience deep relaxation, a foretaste of freedom through the calming of thought, increased ability to notice and accept change, and –best of all—escape from the tyranny of urges, cravings, and moods.

frozen wave

On Posture (3)

To train oneself to sit relatively still for a period of more than a few minutes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Most people have never tried to do it. Our normal practice, when we sit or stand for an extended period—when we are waiting for a bus, say—is to change position frequently. We will shift our weight from one foot or one buttock to the other, turn our heads, reposition our arms, cross and uncross our legs.

Experienced yogis also adjust their bodily posture, but do it at longer intervals and in ways so subtle that the movements are difficult to detect even when you are looking for them. That is as it should be. Until you are dead the body is never perfectly still, and the optimum position of the body for today’s conditions is a work-in-progress. For that reason it is necessary for the beginner to monitor and adjust the various elements of posture with some frequency until the work of fine-tuning becomes habitual and automatic.

Just to sit still, moment after moment, will require a certain effort and vigilance until the process of sitting quietly with attention to posture is fully assimilated. For one who is unaccustomed to it, to hold a given position for more than a very brief period will induce muscular fatigue. Bodily discomfort leads to the urge to move. Processes in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area of the brain prepare the nervous system to activate certain muscle groups. That anticipatory process is called a premotor or readiness potential. In time, out of many such subtle acts of planning an additional layer of muscular tension will arise. If that tension is not dispelled by repeated acts of relaxation, a feedback loop of discomfort and tension will force the trainee to break posture.

Learning to relax without moving is one of the primary skills to be acquired by the novice meditator. The least painful way to develop it is to attend with equal care to all the elements of posture. In brief, good posture is characterized by the following attributes, which can be recalled by means of an acronym. In optimum posture the body is

Relaxed: although special attention should be paid to the muscles of the torso, those of the scalp and face should not be neglected. Merely to notice the tension is often sufficient to dispel it. A head-to-toe scan can be performed periodically.

Upright: Extend the spine as though pulled upward by a cord attached to the crown of the head, or push upward against an imaginary weight resting on the crown; then relax. Strain on the lower back can be alleviated by placing a cushion beneath the buttocks only.

Balanced: The torso should lean neither forward nor back, neither to the left nor the right.

Stable: The ideal base for sitting is a triangle consisting of the two knees (or feet) and the buttocks. This can be achieved in a number of ways (see illustration).

Some teacher and schools include four more items in their checklist, as follows:

Breath is soft, regular, and natural. If it feels constrained or rough, it can be regulated by consciously relaxing the muscles of the chest and abdomen and/or by sitting up straighter.

Eyes: the gaze can be lowered to the floor or directed to the middle distance and unfocused. (For certain exercises the eyes are closed.)

Tongue: the foremost part of the tongue is laid gently against the palate just behind the front teeth.

Hands: The hands may be placed in one of several recommended positions, called mudra, and laid in the lap or on the thighs.

Various seated meditation postures

For the first few weeks or months of regular seated practice, it is recommended that the trainee cycle through these lists often. The order given here is for ease of memorization. You will settle on the order that works best for you. The task of becoming proficient in sitting is by itself more than enough to keep a beginner busy for a long time. Moreover it is, in and of itself, a complete method of cultivating mindfulness and comprehensive awareness that is not always recognized as such. It could be described as an alternative approach to contemplating the body (kayanupassana). Students of Soto Zen know it as the gateway to the practice of shikan-taza, “merely to sit.”

The details of posture will be described fully in a document to be made available as a PDF.

(To be continued.)