The principles of practice are straightforward even as the world is not
In this chapter I have endeavored to draw together some of what I have learned through the threads and circumstances of my own personal, professional, and scientific experience with meditation. I hesitate to ennoble the process by calling it a “journey”; it was more akin to muddling along in the face of confusion, incomplete knowledge, and spotty instruction. My object is to provide a conceptual framework that may be useful in understanding meditation in a relatively straightforward way; a description unencumbered by the narratives of religious traditions and instruction that often mask its essential simplicity by conflating the practices engaged to cultivate the ground for recognition and that which is recognized as a result of them. It is a description I think I would have found helpful.
In extracting and describing in this way some of the fundamental mental principles at work in the shaping of our experience of the world, and making a clear distinction between the relatively straightforward mental training exercises used to experientially recognize some of those principles in real time from that which can result from their practice, I do not mean to imply that the world itself is simple. But it does have a number of advantages.
First, it is easy for the actions and material objects related to the execution of the enquiry to become ritualized and/or fetishized, diverting and truncating the curiosity that is the heart of enquiry. This description appropriately transfers the mystique that the attending skills and dharma narrative associated with meditation practice are often given toward the mystery we find ourselves in. This does not exclude the skills and process from the mystery, but neither does it make precious the means by which the mystery is better appreciated.
Second, it values the cognitive function as an aid to penetrating into this mystery. Conflating meditation’s means and ends can lead practitioners to undervalue their thinking function, concerned that it will just lead them further into the cognitive weeds and distract them from the real work of meditation, which is often seen as beyond thinking, or stopping thought. Instruction in some traditions repeatedly caution against “over-thinking things," invoking the Zen admonition to not mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself, as though attempting to think critically about meditation is to attempt to reduce the ineffable to the cognitive. Certainly the cognitive is slippery mental territory to yoke, but any of our human functions that remain underdeveloped or under-utilized limits us in the enquiry; not taking full advantage of critical and analytic thinking only limits the resources available to us in penetrating to the heart of the question.
Third, it makes clear the distinction between meditation means and ends. Conflation of these contributes to confusion in discussions of meditation as it becomes popular in clinical and business settings. Here, people’s initial curiosity is oriented in some way toward the goals of obtaining clinical or productivity effects rather than about the “I-ness” embedded in the perceptual process that interests long-term meditators in the Buddhist and other insight traditions; an interest that requires a deeper enquiry and level of understanding in the instructor. Nevertheless, terms and practices from one interest carry over into the other. For example, the common exhortation to 45-minute practice periods is a holdover from monastic traditions but without any evidential base for clinical or business settings. As such, this and other practices may serve only to make the process appear forbidding to some who might benefit from short periods of practice. Another example relates to my remarks above about the cautionary stance toward the thinking function, which results in beginners not being given a clear conceptual framework from which to approach meditation practice; this stance finds expression in the admonition that “it’s best to learn this by direct personal experience.” While this is undoubtedly true, the sign above the door is an important determinant of who enters and a clear explanation can arouse the interest of more than those with a high tolerance for ambiguity.
I have also raised some questions about the cultural values and assumptions that may be embedded in meditation practice as it travels and finds expression in Western countries. The iconographies and approaches to change are quite different and it is important to extract, examine, and discuss their implications without prejudgment.
Personal Meditation Journey
In 1961, I found myself travelling through India. It was a fortuitous series of events that took me there, and the vibrancy and chaos was jaw-dropping for a very young man raised as a Catholic in a small, remote, and provincial country.
Most memorable among the wonders was the sight of a stark-naked man walking nonchalantly along a crowded street. Just as remarkable was the minimal attention he drew. I learned he was a seeker of something called enlightenment. The idea fascinated me.
A year later, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on a world tour, spoke at my university. He talked about the root of suffering, and meditation as a path to enlightenment. I was skeptical, but a friend who attended the practice session taught me what she had learned. And that was the start of it. Since childhood my interest has gone to how things work, the underlying causes, and here was something practical I could experiment with. I found the mantra meditation emotionally soothing for my turbulent emotional life, but it created more questions than it answered.
Something called yoga was also popular at the time and I found its claims intriguing also. Practical instruction was hard to come by, however. So, once again I headed off to India, this time to live in an ashram that offered yoga training. It was a demanding program but left unanswered questions.
While there I heard of a Burmese instructor who taught vipassana meditation courses and I travelled north to try it. The slender insight it provided into my mind captured my interest and offered a means to continue. I stayed on in the Japanese temple in Bodh Gaya taking instruction in Zen from the roshi. It was the start of a decades-long immersion in Buddhist practice that included long periods of solitary retreat.
Advaita's contemplative approach later provided a third leg for the stool and in making apparent the limitations of a path-based approach to meditation, facilitated recognition of the qualities of presence I allude to in my chapter.