Meditation: What and Why
Kevin Kim solicited responses to the question, Why meditate? Here are some preliminary thoughts on the nature and purposes of meditation. A later post will deal with methods of meditation.
We need to start with a working definition. The question of what meditation is is logically prior to the questions of why to do it and how to do it. The proximate goal of meditation is the attainment of mental quiet. I say ‘proximate’ to leave open the pursuit of further, more specific, goals, and so as not to prejudge the ultimate goal which will be differently conceived from within different metaphysical and religious perspectives. It would be tendentious to claim that the ultimate goal of meditation is entry into Nibbana/Nirvana, or union with the Godhead, or realization of the identity of Atman and Brahman. For these descriptions import metaphysical schemes acceptance of which is not necessary to do meditation. ‘Mental quiet’ involves a minimum of conceptualization and names a state that is phenomenologically verifiable. Mental quiet is not easy to attain, but it is within reach of the resolute meditator. When you reach it, you will know you are there. But when you reach union with the Godhead, if you do, will you know that it is union with the Godhead as opposed to a very unusual state internal to your own psyche, a state with no objective validity?
I will use ‘meditation’ to cover both the attempt to achieve mental quiet and the resting in it once it is achieved. Mental quiet is an intense state of wakeful consciousness and is not to be confused with any sort of unconsciousness. What’s more, it is a positive state of consciousness, and thus not a mere absence of ‘mental noise.’ Ordinary mind is characterized by ‘mental noise,’ by the presence of a relative chaos of memories, expectations, perceptions, imaginings, trains of association, emotional responses built upon the foregoing, and much else besides. Ordinary mind is undisciplined mind. It is mind dis-tracted. Training in logic, and indeed the systematic study of any subject, introduces discipline whose fruits are concentration and order. The result is disciplined thinking. The disciplined thinker thinks to some purpose, putting his mind to work on well-defined problems. This is one step beyond ordinary mind. Meditation, however, is disciplined non-thinking. Meditation is two steps beyond ordinary mind. Concentration is developed and put to use, but not for the sake of precise and orderly sequential thinking about some object external to thinking, but to dis-cover the root of all thinking, that which is transcendentally-ontologically prior to all thinking.
“Man is a stream whose source is hidden.” R. W. Emerson) In terms of this simile, the meditator is one who attempts to swim upstream, against the outbound current of thought, in order to arrive at the hidden source of the thought-stream. This arrival is a return, a return to what one is in one’s root and essence. By contrast, and continuing with the simile, the disciplined thinker allows himself to be carried downstream but controls his movement by means of canoe and paddles, while the person of ordinary mind goes with the flow letting himself be swept away and delivered into the diaspora of worldly distraction and Pascalian divertissement.
Thinking is discursive; meditation non-discursive. Discursive procedures include: subsuming particulars under concepts; affirming, denying, and entertaining propositions; constructing arguments from propositions; analyzing concepts, propositions, arguments; drawing distinctions; comparing, contrasting, synthesizing; making inferences, framing and testing hypotheses, etc. Meditation may start with these procedures, but the goal is to bring them to a halt, but without falling back into ordinary distracted mind, or into any state of mind in which discipline and focus is provided by worldly objects rather than by the mind itself. The person of ordinary mind has mental discipline imposed upon him by external events and other people; the meditator seeks a state of sovereign self-discipline.
The proximate goal of meditation, then, is to focus the mind so as to touch upon, and then abide in and enjoy, mental quiet.
Meditation is hard work, demanding time and daily commitment. It is an ‘unnatural’ activity in that it involves ‘swimming upstream’ as per the Emersonian simile. Changing the metaphor, it is an attempt to counteract the centrifugal tendency of the mind. Why do it? To invoke a third metaphor, why try to tame the wild horse of the mind? Since it demeans meditation to think of it as a mere relaxation-technique, I mention only to set aside such reasons as stress-relief and the lowering of blood pressure. There are at least three serious reasons to meditate, falling under the rubrics tranquility, inquiry, salvation.
Tranquility. The first serious reason is to gain control of one’s mind. One day a person realizes that mastering one’s thoughts is better than being mastered by them. Tired of being assailed by pointless memories, fears, worries, negative and useless thoughts generally, one sets out to do something about it. The meditator discovers that the mind has a wonderful power to regulate itself, to detach itself from thought-pollutants and withdraw within what could be called the Inner Citadel. Like the Stoic in quest of ataraxia, the meditator seeks imperturbableness, freedom from avoidable suffering. One seeks to develop a calm, deliberate, measured response to the flux and shove of life.
Inquiry. A second serious reason is to inquire into the mind’s essence. Now the goal is not tranquility so much as it is insight. The aim is understanding over pacification. What is consciousness in its own nature? Is it merely a diaphanous medium through which things appear? A mere “wind blowing towards objects” (J.-P. Sartre) ever evacuating itself so as to reveal what is other than it? Is it nothing in itself, being only the revealing of objects? Or does consciousness have a hidden nature that can be discovered only by ‘swimming upstream’? Does intentionality (object-directedness) characterize every form of consciousness, or are there non-intentional (but also non-sensuous) states of consciousness wherein the mind abides in itself? Is there a depth-dimension, normally hidden, that can be penetrated?
Third-person approaches to mind, through behavioral or brain studies, are important but cannot give any real insight here. What is needed to is a first-person approach. Introspectionist psychology and phenomenology advance part of the way in this direction, but they continue to operate within subject-object duality. Can we execute a sort of transcendental-phenomenological re-duction ( L. re-ducere, a leading back) to the originary source of subject and object? Maybe, maybe not. But to explore this, the only appropriate method would be some kind of deep meditation technique. In short, meditation is a tool of inquiry into the nature of mind. Although it must be balanced out by other tools, it is an indispensable tool. Someone who claims to be serious about understanding the mind, but refuses to meditate I would dismiss as unserious. If this entails my dismissal as unserious of almost all contemporary philosophers of mind, then so be it. Analogy: You say you are serious about oceanography, but you refuse to descend into the depths? Then I say you are not all that serious. You don’t want to see with you own eyes what is down there.
Salvation. The human predicament – and it is indeed a predicament – is clearly unsatisfactory: Sarvam Dukkham as the Buddhists say. It is also clear that no social or political action can ameliorate things in any fundamental way, which is not to say that piecemeal improvements by social and political means cannot and should not be made. Now anyone who accepts these two points may well wonder whether there is a Way Out of the human predicament. To investigate this, a retreat within would seem to be indispensable. Meditation can thus serve a soteriological purpose.
Leaving the royal compound, prince Siddartha encountered suffering, old age, and death. A world containing such things shocked him as profoundly unsatisfactory. Resolving to get to the root of the matter, he took up meditation and ascetic practices. Some say he achieved the ultimate insight and became Buddha, the Enlightened One.