Psychology of meditation: Philosophical perspectives

Loriliai Biernacki

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Keats, “Ode to Melancholy”


This chapter addresses the emergence of meditation as a practice and as a component of philosophical understandings of selfhood and subjectivity within the religious and philosophical discourses of early Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. What I present here will offer only piecemeal contours of these traditions; a dim outline of what is an altogether far more rich reality than can be stitched together for this general work. I use as my linking thread for these multivalent, complex traditions an attention to psychology, in order to patch the inevitable gaps of this weave with what is the basic premise for the focus of this book: a psychology of meditation.

The psychology of meditation in these early contexts is fundamentally a phenomenology. This phenomenology aims to map and make sense of the inner experiences that arise from these early forays into introspection, as they become formulated, reflected-upon, and then sifted through contextualizing philosophical schemata. There is also, of course, no way that we can talk about a psychology of meditation without situating it within conceptions of selfhood. Self-reflection and introspection, hallmarks of meditation practice, necessarily come to bear on that most proximate object of one's reflection: the sense of self. This chapter will chart the evolution of an idea of a self through these early

Indian traditions of meditation, particularly noting historical development of a notion of self as a transcendent, abstracted ideal of self, separated from materiality. The formulation of a transcendent self also undergoes various permutations in this history, with, for instance, a Buddhist rejection of ideas of a self, and with Tantric attempts to reconnect the transcendent self to the body.

I begin with an overview of the major moments in these early religious traditions, and then analyze several important classifications for these Indian traditions historically, specifically as they relate to ideas of selfhood. I address these in roughly chronological order, beginning from the early period, called the Vedic period, through the rise of Jainism and Buddhism. Following this, I address the evolutionary trajectory that meditation practices and, with this, the formulation of subjectivity undergo with the advent of new forms of religiosity, namely devotional movements and Tantra. One interesting observation that this comparative analysis reveals is that while many of the same meditation techniques (e.g., visualization, use of mantras, body awareness) are employed across different religious traditions, nevertheless, the interpretations of the effects and meanings of meditation differ across the traditions. We may understand this as the historical over-coding that philosophy and doctrine exert on the formulation of conceptions of self in meditation. No doubt, there is also a mutual influence at work, with philosophy and doctrine shaping the results of meditation practice and at the same time, with insights from meditation reflecting back upon philosophical formulations of self. The final section of the chapter addresses a particular formulation of subjectivity within a Tantric meditative context, the sense of wonder, which is somewhat akin to the experience I relate in the section about my own experience of meditation.

By way of my own self-disclosure, I outline my personal sensibility, with my own particular biases, even as I acknowledge no real sturdy foundation for holding them: namely, my own sense that forms and formulations of meditative experience, at least regarding the psychological components of these, evolve as cultures evolve. Adhering more to a Darwinian conception of meandering, rather than a Hegelian notion of aufheben, my own predilection is not in line with a transcendental model of a divine spirit or an omniscient, omnipotent deity. This no doubt works against traditional Western notions of God, and works also against many Indian notions of both deity and ideas of a kind of untouched absolute, the satcidananda of the Advaita Vedanta tradition of India, for instance. It could perhaps be argued that this sort of model of an emerging self through meditative practice might be amenable to a model of that pan- India pervasive concept of causality, karma. It might also be made to at least resonate with some forms of Indian philosophy such as Utpaladeva and Abhi- navagupta’s tenth- and eleventh-century ruminations on a dynamic emergence of divinity. In any case, my own preference for a model of evolving meditative experience will influence the portrait I present.

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