A. Meditation as a Means to Knowledge
It is common for western experimental psychologists to equate any use of the mind for self investigation with introspection, a mode of inquiry to which we are understandably allergic. Introspectionism as a school of psychology, made popular by the nineteenth-century psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, failed definitively to provide a basis for experimental psychology. The reader has probably discovered the problem with what we call introspection for him or herself many times. When one simply tries to introspect, to look inward, about a problem for example, the chances are that one finds one’s thoughts going round and round, and the best one can hope for is to think some additional, hopefully satisfying, thought about one’s thoughts. Without a proper method we are caught in our conceptual systems. It is precisely to cut through such introspection that various meditative techniques were discovered.
A second misleading picture of meditation held by westerners involves dissociation of mind and body: trance, hypnotism, ‘mystical’ experiences, and altered states of consciousness. While such states must be included in any psychology of the whole of human capacity, they are no more central to what the meditative traditions have to tell us about knowing than any other human state or activity.
Perhaps the simplest contrast to both introspection and dissociation is the meditative methods called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term used in some of the Buddhist traditions, particularly Theravada, some Zen, and by some Tibetan teachers. Mindfulness is described as experiencing what mind and body are doing as they are doing it, being present with one’s mind, body, and energy in their ordinary states of occurrence. A related concept from the more bodily oriented practices, such as the martial arts, is integration in which body, energy, mind, intention, awareness, and action come to form one nonfragmented, integrated whole. Whatever the terminology or school of meditation, in my observations, meditative techniques of concentration, calming, alert observation, and integration render people more viable instruments of self-observation. What then is the portrait of the human that emerges from the meditative traditions? I will trace the evolution of this portrait and what it has to tell us about modes of knowing though several stages of development.
B. Discoveries of the Beginning Mediator
Attention. Beginning meditators are usually shocked. Their first and immediate discovery is often about the nature of attention. Mental contents change rapidly and continuously: thoughts, sensations, feelings, worries, daydreams, inner conversations, sleepiness, fantasies, plans, memories, theories, emotions, self-instructions about the techniques, judgements about thoughts and feelings, judgements about judgements. All meditators who sit still and use a mental technique, regardless of their tradition, purpose, or technique report these kinds of experiences. This is a point easily discoverable also by the nonmeditating reader; simply notice what the mind is doing as one tries to keep attention on some simple mental, or even physical, task.
Even more pointed than noticing the constant shifting of attention is the discovery that attention is, for the most part, indirect. That is, the mind is not sharply present with its experiences as they are happening but rather drifts about not noticing that it has left its assigned object or task until the meditator or task oriented person ‘comes back’ with a ‘jerk’ to the present. Then the meditator realizes, not only that he had been ‘away’, but that while he was wandering, he was not really aware of what he was thinking or feeling; he now only remembers what had been going on in his mind through a haze of summarizing concepts and judgements. This is not merely the case for unpleasant experiences from which one might expect a person to want to dissociate. Even the simplest or most pleasurable of daily activities eating, walking, talking with a friend tend to pass rapidly in a blur of commentary as one hastens to the next mental occupation. (just notice what your mind does at the next meal).
In the cognitive science portrait of the mind, knowing was indirect. Now we see one experiential basis for modelling it in this way. However, meditators (or anyone else) can only discover the indirectness of attention by contrast, that is, by experiencing moments of being present which are less indirect than the moments of wandering. Thus an alternative experience, one of directness, has its birth at the same time as the experiental discovery of indirectness.
The self. When meditators begin to notice themselves, even if they are being explicitly taught about nonself in the Buddhist tradition, what they tend to report is amazement at the power and ubiquitousness of their self-concern. Thoughts, memories, plans, goals, hopes, fears, judgements, etc., all are about oneself or others important to oneself. The constantly shifting emotive tone of experience centres on judgements of whether events are good, bad, or irrelevant to oneself.
And who or what is this self? Leaving theories aside, let us contemplate a given moment of experience. We ordinarily take experience to be composed of at least two aspects: subject and object, perceiver and thing perceived. And, as the discovery of self-referencing has shown, the object of perception is normally seen as either desirable or threatening or boring to the perceiver who then has impulses to get the desirable and avoid or destroy the undesirable. This is a relatively simple point (William James, for example, noticed it), which can be readily verified by the reader: just look at something, say the wall in front of you. Isn’t there some sense of a looker, perhaps located in the head behind the eyes, looking at an object spatially located outside yourself? Now try looking at an emotionally relevant object such as your relationship, favorite food, enemy, or an irritating appliance.
Thus in the ordinary experience of the self, we see the basis for the separated knower and wanter of cognitive science models. However, any meditator who gets close enough to experience to begin seeing this knower and wanter in action also begins to feel a kind of vertigo of the knower and curiosity about the wanter. Who is it who is seeing that see-er who is looking at the wall – a second see-er? Beginning mindfulness meditators may try to become such a second looker, a stance which is quite awkward. But if I am not such a second separate and temporally continuous knower, then who is it about whose fate I am so emotionally concerned? What is knowing and wanting? Again, as with attention, the very discovery in experience of the cognitive sciences’ separated knower and wanter brings with it a sense of the limitations of this approach to understanding.
The body and emotions. Experience of the body and experience of emotions are aspects of the knowing and feeling self so pointedly confusing to beginning meditators that these areas deserve special comment. Is my body a part of myself as subject or is it an other, a separated object of experience? Where is the mind when I am ‘spaced out’ and not ‘in’ the body? Isn’t it odd that I can feel alienated from something as much part of me as my own body? What do all of the mind/body issues of philosophy actually mean experientially?
Even more puzzling is the relation of a person to his or her emotions. At the same time that people identify themselves with an emotion they may also be seeing that emotion as an other, as something outside of themselves of whose ‘attack’ they can be afraid. Both the body and emotions are boundary areas where the model of the separated knower and wanter is still in operation but is strained. Such issues become matters of living contemplation for meditators, especially Buddhist meditators whose tradition may point them toward these conundrums.
Goal-directedness and action. The mind becomes acutely uncomfortable without goals, without something toward which the cognitive and emotional system is aiming. That is why satisfied desires no longer please, and new desires constantly spring up. Meditators discover this as, sooner or later, their peace-providing meditation technique becomes irritating or boring and the mind reaches out, over and over again, for something else, some goal, something to do.
This constant activity of mind appears directly related to action. In fact, some Theravada Buddhist mindfulness techniques direct the meditator to slow all actions to a crawl and carefully observe the impulses and intentions preceding the smallest movement. Thus observed, action in general begins to show up as a complex matter engendered by self-referring goals, intentions, plans, evaluations, reasoning, strategies, doubts, and efforts. Is this not the very picture of the cognitive scientist’s models of action? ‘Yet is all this required for actions?’ the meditator may begin to wonder? Does the popping up of a thought in the mind require preceding plans and efforts to think that thought? Does one get out of bed in the morning by means of thinking about it? Thus, as with the knower and the wanter, the beginning meditator both discovers and comes to question the cognitive scientist’s rule-based view of action.
Interpersonal relationships. Self-referentiality applies to interpersonal relationships. Other people, like any other object of the external world, are the objects of desires, aversions and indifference depending on whether they are seen as good, bad, or irrelevant to the self’s goals. How saddening it is for decent meditators who had thought themselves as altruistic as anyone else to begin to notice the subtle and devious ways in which self-referentiality may manifest. For a mind in its egocentric mode there is no way out of this cocoon of self-reference.
This then is the portrait of the alienated information processor assumed by the cognitive sciences, decried by the humanities, and discovered in experience by the beginning meditator. It is where we first meet Shalipa, cowering in his hut wishing to sleep the sleep of ignorance, eat the food of greed, and terrified of the threatening wolves. It is the mode of knowing, feeling, and acting called samsara in Buddhist terminology, the wheel of existence to which sentient beings are bound by their habits unless they do something to break those habits. Other meditative traditions bear similar descriptions. Most Hindu schools speak of gross or lower levels of consciousness which replicate this picture. The beginning Taoist meditator discovers his Monkey who lives ‘alone in the branches of his small tree world … his environment a blur of the frantic activity created by unchecked desire.’ And western religions speak of sin or distance from God.
As indicated previously, what all this suggests is that the cognitivist model of modern psychology actually has its roots in our basic folk psychology, a psychology which is not a product of the modern (or postmodern) world, nor of contemporary philosophy, nor of social changes, nor of particular customs or cultural values. Does that mean that humans are in a hopeless situation with respect to these matters? To be sure, the cognitivist and folk psychological models stop here with the isolated information processor. However, the meditative traditions do not stop here. What is to come is the portrait of the full human being which is uncovered by pursuing the further discoveries of meditation. Our beginning meditator may have discovered the alienated samsaric information processor experientially, but (s)he did so in a context in which that disconnected and needy self did not make complete experiential sense. Indeed, each time the meditator finds himself as the dualistic information processor, (s)he does so against a background of intuition that there might be an entirely different way of knowing and being. Must not we suppose something like this to have happened to Shalipa if we are to make sense of his perseverance and eventual realizations? Let us look at these further developments in the meditative traditions.
C. Further Meditative Discoveries: The Process View
Attention can be trained. The ceaseless ungrounded activity of the mind can be pacified and the mind can be taught to hold an object of attention. All meditation traditions acknowledge and sometimes use this. Almost any object of attention can be used: a sight, a mental image, the breath, a mantra, sensations, the body in motion, space. The technique is usually to return again and again to the object of meditation. The mind can be taught not only to cease wandering away from its object, at least temporarily, but also to remain alert while holding it. But then attention has to be further trained, or perhaps untrained, to let go. Holding a particular mental content is not the goal of any meditative tradition, and some traditions teach letting go in other ways. The goal is to develop (discover, click into) a different mode of knowing and being which is available to humans. The attentional aspect of this mode is that the mind appears to have the natural ability to be present with the flux of experience, the knowing and the not knowing aspects of experience, in a relaxed and natural way. From the vantage point of this kind of attention, the self and the other aspects of experience which we have discussed, begin to take on a rather different appearance.
The self is unreflectively assumed to be a thing which abides through time, is independent of other things, and needs to be nurtured and protected by the person who has it. As meditators become more in touch with the reality of their experience, a view of the world in terms of unitary things and events tends to shift to an experience of ongoing processes. For example, experiences that were once assumed unitary wholes (e.g. ‘I was angry all morning’ or ‘I spent the whole night afraid of the howling of the wolves’) are seen to be a sequence of particular, ever-changing sensations and concepts. Traits once seen as part of an independent self are noticed to arise interdependently with circumstances, and those circumstances to arise interdependently with increasingly more extensive arenas of world events.
Such shifts in view are very useful but are not quite the essence of the shift into a new mode of knowing. Who is it that is perceiving these interdependent processes? As previously stated, we ordinarily take experience to be composed of at least two aspects: subject and object, knower and known, perceiver and thing perceived. Initial forms of meditation instruction and of meditation may sound as though they are intended to exaggerate the sense of a constant perceiver, a homunculus who watches and comments on the passing flux of experience. Buddhist instructions often stress watchfulness, and some forms of Hinduism teach a witness consciousness. In order to counteract self-identification with passing experiences or with the personality, meditators might be taught to say to themselves: ‘I am not my thoughts,’ ‘I am not my emotions,’ etc. But this sense of an exaggerated separate perceiver is limited, temporary, and somewhat artificial. Eventually meditators come to see, suspect, or at least have a glimmering that the subject or perceiver is only the subject side of a momentary experience, an aspect of the perception or thought itself.,
This is an extremely important point in the meditation process. None of the traditions teach that meditation is a means of separating oneself from one’s experience — a contradiction in terms at best. Each tradition, at some point, directs the meditator to be in experience but with the broader sense of knowing engendered by the training and then relaxation of attention. A panoply of techniques exist in all the traditions for challenging or pacifying the sense of separateness and for an intelligent destruction of the artificial sense of an observer. The meditator may be told to be the object of meditation (the image, breath, howling of wolves, etc.), or perhaps to try hard to ‘catch’ the watcher, or perhaps to relax and trust completely, or perhaps to perform daily work tasks very very rapidly — the possibilities are limitless. This is a point where, when such teachings are explicit, meditators are likely to feel pushed. An analytic approach to no self can be interesting, but the precise experiencing of the lack of a separate observer is something from which the mind recoils like putting a finger on a hot stove. With perseverance, however, new possibilities for knowing, feeling, and relating can open from this way of experiencing.
The body. In western psychology, physiology, medicine, theology, and common sense, body and mind are generally considered separate things. The body is seen as undebatably material and solid while the mind is a something else, a something whose nature and relationship to the body has long been the subject of much speculative debate. There are several ways in which meditative experiences challenge our notions of the body and of the body/mind experience.
1. The body can be experienced as patterns of energy and space rather than solely as solid matter. To get a sense of this vision the reader might try the following contemplation: imagine your body as a giant and your mind as a tiny traveler inside the body. Progressively increase the size of the body so that the traveler is exploring at increasingly micro levels of structure; then turn the contemplation onto the traveller who is doing the exploring.
2. Body and mind can be experienced in a meaningful way as actually not separate. In that case, the body is described as a part of knowing, as self-knowing, rather than as an inert thing that can be known only from the outside.
3. Bodily energy is experienced as moving in certain channels (as in acupuncture meridians in Chinese medicine). These are experientially quite real, and manipulating them has notable effects (as you may have experienced if you have ever undergone an acupuncture treatment). These channels do not correspond to western neurological maps. When observer and observed are experienced as not separate, the energy flows can be self manipulated without medical assistance.
4. There are certain energy centres within the body (the chakras) which have particular characteristics. Most of the meditative traditions acknowledge the existence of these, but by no means all techniques or all meditators work with them. For those who do, the centres can be of central importance. When perceived or approached with our usual restricted, dualistic mode of knowing, the centres themselves appear constricted or closed, and each centre appears to form the nexus of its own type of neurotic energy. When approached with a non-dualistic openness, each centre can be experienced as the seat of its corresponding broader knowing or wisdom. For example, the head centre, normally the basis of intellectualization and criticism, is said to open to a pure mirror-like seeing, and the heart centre, in which feelings of sadness and grief are often experienced, is said to give rise to the experiences of inclusive, accepting, timeless space and of connectedness to the world.
Emotions. As was previously pointed out, for a mind in its egocentric mode of knowing, emotions are the monitoring of duality, of how the subject is doing in relation to its objects, to its desires and goals, to others, to its world. The slightest threat to the self’s territory (a cut finger, a disobedient child) arouses fear or anger. The slightest hope of self enhancement (money, praise, pleasure) arouses excitement, desire or greed. The first hint that a situation may be irrelevant to the self (waiting in line, meditating) produces boredom. In Buddhism, these three motivational factors, aggression, passion, and ignorance, are what keep samsara operating. They are said to be what keep humans, such as Shalipa, bound to the habitual mode of knowing and feeling.
But in many of the meditative schools, emotions, like other phenomena, are Janus faced. When they are experienced in a non-dualistic, open mode of knowing, they can be seen, it is said, not as problems but as the basic energies of the universe. Some meditative traditions talk of coming to see, tuning into, riding on, being with, or becoming one with the energy level of the emotion and thereby achieving wisdom. Taoism talks of seeing the energy of the different emotions as the very elements out of which nature is composed (how could it be otherwise?) and thereby achieving harmony. For example, anger might be recognized as the element fire which can be used appropriately. In Tibetan Buddhism, basic emotions, when seen in their totality, are the very stuff of the basic wisdoms. For example, the energy of pride is (transmutable into) the wisdom of equanimity. In short, emotions can function as egocentric obstacles or as potent catalysts for wisdom.
Goal directedness and action. The constant discontent of habitual desires and goal orientation obscures the broader, more open sense of knowing of which we have been speaking. Meditation techniques abound to relax, outwit, stun, or perhaps utilize the energy of desire and goal directness of the apparently separated knower and wanter. We ordinarily think of freedom as being able to do, what we want to do following our desires and goals. But meditators begin to see that their goals and sense of choice are determined by habits, conditioning, and circumstances and are anything but free. With great delight people report an occasional experience of what feels like real freedom – precisely when they have done what they describe as letting go of desires, goal directedness and choice.
But without desires and goals, how can there by action? Would one lie in bed unable to get up, even for growing physical necessities? Would one randomly and affectlessly murder respectable people? These are our fantasies about freedom. What meditators, artists (and many ordinary people) say is that it is precisely when they are, even very briefly, without the usual sense of goal directedness that they can act spontaneously in ways appropriate to the situation at hand. For example, it is well documented that people who act heroically in times of emergency (plunge into icy water to save a drowning child and so on) often report that they did not think, decide, or choose but simply did it. Furthermore, such actions may involve skills which the rescuer says he did not know he possessed. Action is not necessarily what we assume it is.
Interpersonal relations. From the point of view of the limited, dualistic, samsaric information processor; relating with other people is a dismal business, which, just like relations with the rest of nature, can only consist (with varying degrees of refinement) of separation, ignorance, aggression, and greed. Meditators say that meditation affects their view of interpersonal relationships. Glimpses of a state in which there is neither separation of the knower nor desire for future goals also reveals the possibility of an open and receptive relationship to people beyond the manipulative streetfighter mentality. I have never spoken with a meditator who was pleased with his progress (an important caveat) who did not mention something about feeling more at ease, more understanding, or more kindness towards other people. Many, including the dissatisfied, have experienced glimpses described as non-separateness, open-heartedness, or compassion. A few individuals appear to undergo a marked change in their orientation to people.
D. A New Mode of Knowing and Being
Some meditators in all traditions find or glimpse a truly new mode of knowing and being. They variously attribute their ability to do this to factors such as perseverance, relaxation, or special attunement to realized teachers (or deities). The glimpse is generally described, not as a new experience, but as a finding, or tapping into, a mode of knowing and being which was there all along within ordinary experience but which they had hitherto ignored. These glimpses, they often say, are what keep them going. Various characteristics (or noncharacteristics) are ascribed to this mode of knowing and being:
1. It is not a subject/object form of knowing, not located in a knowing subject who knows objects. There is just the knowing; experiences are ‘self known.’
2. There is no desire in it, no reaching beyond the experience itself. It is contented, relaxed, adequate, doesn’t care about the concerns of passion and aggression.
3. It has a spacelike or spacious aspect. This experience can be evoked by experiences of ordinary space. (Perhaps that is why humans are so enamored of views and sweeping vistas.)
4. It is nontemporal, not located in time, not localizable in the past, future, or even present, timeless. (For this nontemporality, some traditions use the word permanent.)
5. It has no limits or boundaries. It is not a limited capacity system; capacity is not a relevant descriptive dimension.
6. It is not graspable, describable, conceptualizable, formulatable or modelable; it is a nonconceptual knowing. It is said to be beyond words, beyond concepts, and not an object of the conceptual mind. It is violated somewhat by any description of it including all that is said here.
(It should be noted that the Buddhist term emptiness can be, and has been, used with respect to any or all of these first six aspects.)
7. It accommodates/includes/accepts everything, all content, unconditionally.
8. It is of supreme value, worth everything. When meditators speak of their actual experience, this is the most important aspect, the sine qua non, the reason why anyone would want to bother with boring meditations, arcane retreats, humbling mindfulness, frustrating spiritual groups, or cantankerous gurus in the first place. Our culture and our psychology separate the knowing dimension from the value/emotive dimension as I have been doing hitherto in this chapter. But the experience here is that at the very basis of experience, the two are not separate.
9. Knowledge of the ordinary subject/object, space/time limited world can be from this broader, unlimited, accommodating, unconditionally valued perspective. The more limited known world is seen as not separate from the broader view. This can be expressed as a new epistemological vision of the origin of experience – that relative experience is born afresh each instant out of the ground of this nonconceptual, primordial knowing. Or it can be expressed as an ontological statement – that nothing is ever born or separated from that ground when viewed from the perspective of the broader experience of totality. But perhaps foremost it is a very personal, transformative, deeply therapeutic vision of the inherent value of the world and of experience.
10. When actions ‘come from’ this mode of knowing and being, they happen with felt spontaneity, and turn out to be situationally appropriate, of benefit to others, and sometimes shockingly skillful. This is perhaps the state which is called nonaction.
E. Integration and Wholeness
In the final vision, all of the aspects of experience which we have treated as separate are seen to form an integrated whole. Cognition is not separate from emotion. Mind and body are not separate. The perceiver is not separate from the perception. Action is not separate from knowing in its broadest sense. Time is not separate from the timeless, desires, from the desireless, nor emotions from the sense of unconditional accommodation. The self is not separate from the rest of the world, from others, or from inherent value. Fundamental value is not separate from knowing, from emotion, from anything. And this very vision of integration is not separate from the fragmented world which does not see but does need it.