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.

Three Cheers for Consciousness, Whatever It Is!

In any discussion of the contemplative arts, there is no term more problematical and no topic of conversation more likely to turn rancid than that of “consciousness.” In the following paragraphs I will list a few of the reasons why and ask some of the questions that arose for me in the course of pondering it.

  • The word, “consciousness” is the satchel used to carry a bundle of ideas that have been thrown together without regard for their coherence. Lately I am inclined to think of it as a joke Christmas present consisting of a large, beautifully-decorated box filled with enormous amounts of tissue paper and nothing else. The understanding of consciousness emerges as we unwrap layer upon layer of language and concepts. Most of our ideas about mind, self, and awareness belong to the realm of everyday discourse, acquired from childhood onward in a process that can only be guessed at, while a relatively small number are the result of reflection and study. These conceptual schemata, memes, and ingrained forms of linguistic usage constitute our views. When it comes time to converse we cannot be sure that even our strongest hunches lie altogether beyond their insalubrious influence.
  • The language of conscious and mind is notoriously multivalent and imprecise. “Consciousness” is the semantic equivalent of the astronomer’s black hole. It sucks into itself any meaning that strays too near. Thus we have a single word, “consciousness,” used to denote a range of phenomena that includes (1) various physiological and “mental” functions, (2) the totality of experience, (3) wakefulness as opposed to sleep or coma, (4) sensory awareness, (5) subjectivity, and (6) [certain kinds of] knowledge. We also use “consciousness” as if it referred to (7) a thing or a stuff—a screen on to which thoughts and images are projected, a container that has contents, a stage upon which sensory events appear, and a medium that supports phenomena during their brief lifespans. It is altogether too easy to slip from one sense of the word to another without realizing that a transition has occurred, in what philosophers call the pitfall of equivocation. There can be no doubt that “consciousness” is a very useful term in a wide variety of situations. Even so, I would like to suggest that it is also consistently misleading to the extent that we suppose it to refer to something that exists in the same way that air and water exist. Its true mode of existence is more likely that of the unicorn and Sasquatch.
  • The heritage of Cartesian dualism still lies oppressively over most discussions of consciousness and related subjects. Utter a few words about mind, and the ghost rises up within the machine. Monism may seem to be a forced move, or at least a step in the right direction. But is it? And what difference would it make if we were to trade Materialism for Mentalism? If not much can be said about matter, there is equally little to be said about mind.
  • The distinction between inner and outer realms of experience (that is, between the external world so-called and one’s private mental life), although a perfectly reasonable and well-supported idea, seems (!) not to have a phenomenal basis. When we consider just what is present, we can find no grounds for separation. Contemplatives who have systematically studied sensory phenomena are unable to locate them. Sensation per se is nowhere—that is, it is neither internal nor external. What does that tell us, if anything, about awareness?

cortical sensory homunculus

  • What we know of mind, consciousness, and experience, we know by a process of inference from [perceived or projected] patterns of sensation. That process is developmental. We learn by stages what it means to be a self, to be conscious, and to have a mind. (The same holds true for the material world.) Sensory awareness may be epistemological bedrock. It may be as “deeply” as we can “see” “into” ourselves. Sensation may be as much consciousness as we require. Why do we suppose that there is something more?
  • Sensation is multi-modal. We have learned to distinguish at least six kinds—visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, ideational—and, with training, we can identify several more “senses.” At any particular moment, do we attend to one mode or several at once? Do we always have the clear sense that we are perceiving this or that kind of stimulus? It is not obvious that we do. When we talk about “consciousness,” which kind(s) are we talking about? Or are we talking about a mysterious something else?
  • The volume of raw data provided by the senses at any given moment of waking life is more than the higher neural functions can render “conscious,” hence the need for massively parallel and cooperative processing to eliminate what would otherwise be overwhelming redundancy with little value in guiding the actions of the organism. There is no evolutionary need for the human being to know more than a small fraction of what might be immediately sensible. One of the primary tasks of the brain is to convert the torrent of potential information into a manageable and useful stream. What does that fact tell us about the limits of our capacity for awareness?
  • As far as we can tell, consciousness is a menu of more or less complex processes that yield a range of more or less detailed reports. At a minimum it involves, besides sensory inputs, the participation of attention, working memory, various mechanisms for recognizing and comparing patterns, and dispositions to action. From an evolutionary viewpoint, consciousness is integral to the activity of the organism, and action the raison d’être of consciousness. If cognitive and neurological scientists are right about that, then whatever the details we may add to our knowledge of consciousness in future, we can safely exclude from our definition the mythical creature so much honored by mystical tradition, to wit, the eternally featureless, passive non-entity Who, despite those deficiencies, witnesses all.


A Question about Consciousness (the first of many)

From a reader: In Vedic Science there are seven states of consciousness. Is it appropriate to consider them as just “different” states of consciousness -none of them being “higher” than another?

To the extent I can claim to have grasped the conceptual framework of the seven states or levels of consciousness, it would not seem appropriate to consider the various states as merely different so long as one were looking at them from within the tradition. The system, which has its point of origin in the Upanișads, embodies a hierarchy of values rooted in the identity of Atman (Self with an upper-case “s,” the imperishable world-soul) and Brahman, the Supreme.

Between the the first three of the original four kinds of consciousness—waking, dream, dreamless sleep–and turiya (”the fourth,” pure consciousness so-called), latter-day vedantins interposed the transitional stages of soul-consciousness, cosmic-consciousness, and divine consciousness, which are attained through sādhana, spiritual work. The ultimate goal, turiya or unity consciousness is not a state but the putative background against which phenomena emerge. It is also regarded as the source of experience and the True Self. The notions of spiritual ascent and Self-realization are integral to Vedanta. Similar ideas found their way into post-Așokan Buddhism.

Things are bound to have a very different aspect when we examine the methods of spiritual practice, and the assumptions that undergird them, from a standpoint outside of the tradition. For one thing, we are less likely to ignore evidence that contradicts the words of our teachers. Safely out of range of their blandishments, it makes sense to approach the investigation of consciousness with a minimum of metaphysical prejudice, to put off assigning hierarchical status to particular modes of mental operation as long as possible, and to avoid lazily assigning phenomena to sanctioned categories.

Chaos Chu dozing

Experiments with lucid dreaming are in the early stages, and there are obvious difficulties with getting an experiential handle on dreamless sleep. Scientists who study sleep recognize a transitional stage between sleep and waking, called the hypnogogic. The phenomena that result from the practice of systematic mental exercise might be classified differently, and we could add to the list such items as the physiological and phenomenal effects of rhythmic movement, hypnosis, psychoactive substances, sensory deprivation, physiological abnormality, and illness, any or all of which might have a characteristic “state.”

What if we had to describe the same territory to someone who had no knowledge of Indian philosophy or spiritual practice, with minimal reference to the traditional accounts? In the realm of ordinary discourse we might begin by saying that waking, dream, and dreamless sleep are modes of bodily activity, each having specific signs that are, in turn, indicative of underlying physiological activity. The methods we employ to regulate and inspect our own mental processes might well be susceptible to description in similar terms.

Turiya is a special case, to put it mildly. Tradition calls it Pure Consciousness and Self, and makes it the sole candidate for Absolute Reality, yet it has no attributes whatever and bears not the least resemblance to anything one might be tempted to call either consciousness or a self. Yet despite its lack of features attractive and otherwise, we are admonished to get there with all possible haste, as though it were a four-star resort. The ṛshis of yore can take pride in having foisted upon the West a linguistic usage of truly stunning perversity. Whether it is anything more than that, we shall perhaps know one day.


I will be writing a lot about consciousness. Of the many thorny ideas associated with the practice of the contemplative arts, that of consciousness is the one most fraught with pitfalls. It shares many problems with the kindred ideas of mind, experience, and self. In addition to carrying a heavy load of folk-psychology, it is encrusted with philosophical notions that long ago outlived their expiration dates. Because we talk so often about consciousness, awareness, experience, mind, and so on, we tend to believe that we know a lot more about them than we do. In the next post I will list some of the more glaring defects of our discourse on the topic.

The Mirage of Higher Consciousness

In popular writing about “meditation,” skill in the contemplative arts is equated with what is often called “higher consciousness.” The term is a vestige of German Idealism that has been appropriated by denizens of the cultic milieu to evoke and objectify the sense of spaciousness, self-transcendence, and oneness-with-everything that is taken to be the acme of the spiritual life. Although such mental events are comparatively rare, even those experiences classified as “mystical” are entirely normal and consistent with what we know about the physiology of the human body. However, when they are used to support a variety of worldviews that include multiple dimensions, before- and afterlives, alternative physiologies, and Ultimate Realities, we are well advised to stop and think.


There are compelling reasons to exercise caution in making judgements about the nature of the cosmos based on extraordinary experiences. As organisms enmeshed in a network of biological relations, we human beings are constrained in our ability to know the world in which we live and move and have our being. Like flatworms and voles, we cannot see beyond an experiential horizon limited by the sensory apparatus with which the vagaries of evolution has provided us, and by the material interactions dictated by the range of ecological niches we occupy. Our species has developed a set of intellectual tools, a technology, and methods for their use that allow us to greatly extend the normal range of the senses. Even so, experience alone does not give us warrant to speak of an Absolute or Ultimate Reality except, perhaps, in the sense that there are bound to be limits to both sensation and understanding. The sensory realm is Appearance all the way down[1]. We cannot achieve a God’s-eye view, though we might well be able to convince ourselves that we can. Something like that seems to have happened in the case of certain latter-day “enlightenments.”

There are constraints built into the very activity of striving for mental stability, too. Many of the classic methods of “meditation” do not raise consciousness but lower it. Let us take, for instance, a simple attentional exercise, the basic technique of resting the attention on a pre-selected cluster of sensations. Every gain in sensory purity is accompanied in the same moment by a corresponding loss of perceptual leverage. That tradeoff is not a paradox. It is what happens when, in the course of attaining optimum mental stability, the organism makes the most efficient use of diminishing resources. Think of it as a kind of cognitive downshifting. In the course of enacting the contemplative protocol, the information-processing modules in the cerebral cortex that give semantic structure to events are taken offline one after the other. Mental functions that have been fully recruited to the observation and/or construction of a pre-selected range of sensations are unavailable to be deployed elsewhere. As the various parts of a complex mental procedure become overlearned, and the higher cognitive functions are pacified, awareness is gradually diminished, together with the power to report.

cup of tea

Both concentration and decentration, at their most intense, radically simplify experience by adjusting attentive patterns to bypass memory and the mental operations (pattern-recognition, comparison, etc.) that make noticing possible. The power to conceptualize is likewise inhibited and, along with it, the ability to say anything about what is occurring. Where the capacities for language and thought are in abeyance, we cannot speak of knowledge. Jhāna samādhi lands us in such unvarying landscapes as neither-perception-nor-non-perception and the-extinction-of-perception-and-feeling. The cultivation of liberating insight requires us to remember, to compare, to analyze, and to reflect, functions that can sometimes be performed after the fact. If there is anything aptly called Higher Consciousness, we will find it there, in the realm of knowledge.

[1] The Buddha said as much in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23).

E2. Exploring Sensations

Sensory stimuli are the raw materials of experience. When we are infants we know sensations as they present themselves, or else as more or less crudely shaped by innate perceptual mechanisms. Because the events of infancy are not associated with words and concepts, it is hard for us to remember them. When they are recalled, they come to us suddenly and involuntarily as vivid sense-memories with little in the way of context. Later in life we know sensation mostly in its “cooked” form, as abstract summaries of episodes, scenes from our lives that have been reduced to a kind of code.

Moreover, since the adoption by human beings of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), a sedentary way of life, and civilization (no less than 6,000 years ago), the importance of technical knowledge and problem-solving ability has increased exponentially. The transition from a culture dominated by the sensuous to one dominated by the intellect has been gradual but pervasive. The net result of these shifts is an overemphasis on cogitation which, together with the increasing pace, complexity, and busyness of our lives, has greatly reduced our opportunities to enjoy sensory phenomena as they are. Sensations have become mere indicators of the objects to be used in pursuit of our goals or else ignored.
paleolithic horse
It comes down to this. We think too much about too many things, and all that thinking gets in the way of our fully knowing and appreciating our bodies as the source and vehicle of sensations in themselves. Thoughts are also sensations, but it is almost impossible for us to see that when we are caught up in thinking. Bodies are not mere vehicles to be directed by minds. Minds are the work of bodies, the signals generated by the organism as it communicates with the world around it and among its various internal systems. The primary activities of mind are to eliminate sensory redundancy and to construct entities out of sensations. The things so fabricated include the world, the self, and the concept of mind.

The exercises given below will help trainees to restore the immediacy of sensory phenomena, free of self-consciousness and instrumental agendas. Learning to recover the knowledge of sensory stimuli as such is one of the primary tasks of a student of the contemplative arts. It will change the quality of your moment-to-moment perception. It will put you back in your body, where you belong.And it will greatly expand your sense of what it means to be a body.

body space image

Exercise 2
A. Bodily sensation
In a comfortable seated posture, practice each of the following exercises for a period of not less than nine minutes and not more than 40 minutes, in sessions separated by at least twelve hours. Until you have become both familiar and comfortable with a given exercise, do not move on to the next. The order of the exercises is progressive. Once mastered, they can be performed in any order. The best place to begin is with attention to posture.
i. Monitor the postural indicators listed in the RUBS-BETH acronym. [See On Posture (3)]. Go through the whole sequence from at least three to as many as twelve times; then see if you can get a sense of the body’s posture as a whole. Repeat the process for several days running. It is fundamental.
ii. Directing attention according to your inner somatic map, scan or sweep whole body, starting with the crown of the head and moving slowly down the front. Be alert for signs of tension and any other conspicuous sensations. Where you find them, pause for a moment, giving the spot your full attention, and see what happens. Then move on. Perform the same procedure for the back side of the body. When you become skilled in this technique, you may notice that you speed up as your inner gaze moves through the body. Try to keep a moderate pace. Lots of interesting things are happening, and you don’t want to miss them on account of impatience.
iii. Attend to any and all sensations associated with posture. Allow attention to float freely among them, but do not get lost in space. Stay with the posture for the full period. If attention wanders, or you find that you have become caught up in thinking, bring your attention back to any aspect of bodily posture, and proceed from there as before.
iv. In this exercise we will focus on a single sensory cluster associated with posture, preferably one that is both relatively strong and constant, and therefore available most of the time. Examples are the thumb-tips, where they meet, and the left palm resting upon the right. You will find others. Pick one and stick with it.
v. Focus on the lowest point in the body where there is a strong sensory constellation, such as the buttocks just below the sit bones, where they meet the cushion, or the soles of the feet if you are sitting in a chair. This is an effective technique for overcoming agitation, and for getting out of your head during storms of compulsive thought.
vi. Letting the attention roam freely, but always with alertness and comprehensive awareness, focus on whatever cluster of sensation happens to be the most prominent at the moment. Stay with it until it breaks up or another event comes to dominate the sensory field. Shift attention to the new tactile alpha. Repeat for the duration of the session.
vii. While remaining alert, relax the focus of attention and enlarge the field of awareness to include the totality of bodily sensations, as much as possible all at once. This can be challenging at first. There is a strong tendency for the undirected attention to flit from one sensory event to another. When the mind grasps something, just remember to relax and let go, again and again, until the mental faculties that select objects have learned their lesson and calmed down. (This practice has been included just to give you a taste of freedom and to provide a hint that it is not always either desirable or necessary to concentrate. If you find that it is extremely frustrating, feel free to drop it and come back to it later when you have become adept at some of the simpler associative methods.)

Bodily sensations that arise in connection to the cycle of breathing in and out are a major component of somatic awareness. They are also the focus of a great many methods of cultivating self-knowledge and mental stability across the whole range of contemplative traditions. Because the topic is so big, we will ignore it for now and return to it in future posts.

B. The Dominant Senses: Sight, Sound, & Touch
In the formal practices of sitting and walking there is little opportunity to observe the senses of taste and smell. Therefore we will limit ourselves to the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The idea here is simple, namely, to learn to clearly distinguish between the (subjective) sensory realms associated with the three selsected sensory faculties, as such. As we shall see a bit further on, the ability to discern the several types of sensation quickly and easily will be a valuable asset when we turn to the development of insight. It will be enough for now just to become skilled at “tuning in,” one at a time, to each of the three dominant senses of Sight, Sound, and Touch. It does not matter where you start.

You may find it helpful to conceive of three distinct sensory realms before you begin. The visual realm is the size and shape of your visual field and includes everything that occurs within it. The auditory realm is located in the vicinity of the ears and (for some people at least) between them. The tactile realm is roughly bounded by the outer layer of skin, & likewise includes all sensations—and there are many different kinds—that occur upon and within the body.

Your task in this exercise is simply to learn how to shift from one of these realms to another. So, having chosen one of the sense-fields, bring it to the foreground of awareness. Fully occupy it with attention, spending as much time as you like in becoming familiar with it. Pay particular attention to its special characteristics. Get a feel for it. Stay with it for, say, a session of nine to fifteen minutes. If your object in the first session was Sight, move on to Sound in your next, and Touch in the one after that. When you have devoted a number of periods to each sense separately, then practice shifting from one to another during a single session. You might begin by devoting a minute each to Sight, Sound, and Touch, over the course of a nine-minute period, thus performing three cycles in all. An athletic interval timer is perfect for measuring exercises of this kind. I believe you will quickly find this work to be fascinating. May you be well and happy!

There Is Always Time Enough (Nine Minutes of Quiet Sitting)

[The shortcut to regular sitting sketched in this post was written with beginners in mind, but experienced meditators might find it useful.]

The most important element in a successful practice is regularity. (We can put off the definition of “successful practice” for now.) To do some amount of seated, inner work on a daily basis is the quickest way to acquire the skills that make it possible to bring about lasting changes in attitudes and behaviors. It is also the key to consolidating the gains made in “breakthrough” moments. Retreats provide opportunities for extending and intensifying contemplative experience, and should be attended as often as possible. However, in the absence of a regular schedule of cultivation, the benefits of intensive practice quickly dissipate because they cannot be sustained or integrated. There is no substitute for daily sitting.

The single greatest obstacle to the establishment of a regular sitting practice is the perception that there is not enough time. A common response to the prospect of daily sessions is something along the lines of “I already have too much to do. Sitting is just one more thing to fit into an overcrowded schedule.” Signs of stress can manifest at the very thought of adding yet another commitment to a long list.

clock running

Some of you will be familiar with an anecdote that is pertinent to the topic. The new student asks how often s/he should sit. The teacher suggests that s/he might start with half an hour, twice a day. The student becomes agitated, and says, “That won’t do at all. I’m much too busy to sit for 30 minutes twice a day!” “In that case,” the teacher replies, “Sit for an hour twice a day.”

The point of this story has nothing to do with time. Rather, it is a way of saying that we all take the concept of time far too seriously. Time is an idea, whereas the sense of time’s passage is a measurement of events in relation to each other, mental events included. Time expands and contracts according to the way we choose to observe the many changes that are always happening and how we feel about them. Ultimately time is just what we think it is. Therefore, when we cease to pay attention to our thoughts and begin to observe the various kinds of change within the flow of sensation—which is what we do when we meditate—the sense of the passage of time is attenuated. We could say that constraints on our time get in the way of our practicing only when we think about them.

A friend’s young son was disappointed because while on vacation they could not stop to visit an amusement park that was located along their route. The boy listened as his father explained that he had to be back at work by a particular date. “I just don’t have enough time,” he said. The boy pondered the matter for a few moments. Then his face brightened and he said, “I know! I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll give you some.”

The objective aspect of time comprises events and their relations, but those relations frequently change, and the perspectives from which we measure them shift with changing circumstances. The subjective aspect of time is marvelously elastic. Despite those challenges, and the social pressure to believe that time is an external force driving us along inexorably, it is possible to initiate a regular daily practice of meditation by adopting a simple strategy, namely, to set one’s sights upon a modest goal to be attained by modest means.

Anyone, no matter how busy, can sit for nine minutes a day. If necessary you can set the alarm clock to ring ten minutes earlier than usual and sit as soon as possible after waking up. There are at least two obvious virtues to such a discipline. First, the early part of the morning is quiet. If you arise before the others in your household, you are less likely to be disturbed. Second, within fifteen minute after rising you have accomplished your task. If you can manage to sit for nine minutes in the evening, too, so much the better.

For some people it will be necessary to drink a caffeinated beverage first thing before sitting; others will find that a warmup and stretching, or a 30-minute walk, will greatly improve their ability to relax and focus. Do what you must, but sit. Set the timer for ten minutes and give yourself a few seconds to assume the posture and settle down.

Bear in mind that, in the cultivation of mindful attention and clear comprehension, quality is more important than quantity. Nine minutes of consistent attention to posture, for instance, is preferable to forty minutes of daydreaming and waiting for the buzzer. For nine minutes, make the effort to stay on track. Unless you are one of those rare “naturals,” you will be distracted at some point, probably by your own thoughts. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it to be difficult for a while. Perfect concentration is not the practice. Returning again and again, calmly and gently, to the task at hand, that is the practice. Stay with the process for nine minutes and do not concern yourself with the results, which will show themselves in their own good time.

Time Is On My Side The Rolling Stones

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.