Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reflections on Meditation

Preface: I used to define meditation to my students as having the main function of disrupting one’s thought process. This definition is consistent with the Yoga definition of meditation as cessation of the activities of the mind. But unfortunately, like many other activities carried out by means of our mind, meditation is a mental activity, although its aim is to disrupt the thought process. In other words, its aim is psychological suicide!

Unless we intend to change ourselves to become someone different or better, or be in a more peaceful or ‘enlightened’ state, we wouldn’t take up meditation. Such an activity is the product of the mind, as it is our thought process which always attempts to change the given situation and help us be somewhere else. Meditation presupposes an awareness of our condition and dissatisfaction with it, as well as an attempt to change the condition into something better. The following demonstrates the paradoxical nature of meditation and how and why it is fundamentally frustrating. I will also show some of its virtues as well as its limitations.

Then I will mention some possibilities and discuss them.

What is Meditation? In the West, meditation is used, more often than not, to relax, to gain a sense of calm and freedom from anxiety. In the form of biofeedback it has been used to control blood pressure, promote alpha rhythm in the brain or whatever. For purposes of relaxation, it is also coupled with deep breathing, differential relaxation, visual imaging and so forth. Those who use meditation for such purposes don’t have any pretense to enlightenment, liberation or whatever.

Traditionally, however, meditation has been viewed, at least in the East, not merely as a method of relaxation but as a means to attain Nirvana or Release or enlightenment.

Forms and Methods of Meditation: There are many different forms of meditation: a) the most common form is to focus totally on whatever you are doing, not minding anything else. The traditional story of a woman going around three times with a pot on her head with nothing else in her mind, not even knowing that she was walking around, comes to mind. This is considered one of the means of transformation (mukti) traditionally recognized. That is what one might call the path of karma. You just are focused so much on what you are doing, you are not even minding what it will get you or won’t. Of course, in any skilled action, you have to constantly adjust your means to the ends, or else your actions misfire. That doesn’t mean you care about the outcome; you do care, but not about what you will or won’t get for yourself.

b) Repetition of a mantra or some sort of formula or a holy name is what comes to mind next as the most common method of meditation: Whether it is the syllable ‘Om or the names of gods, or a prayer, it doesn’t matter. You could help it with the counting of beads and what not. (Then you have to split your attention between the reciting and the counting – which I think becomes a chore.)

c) Or you could engage in contemplating God or having a dialogue with Him. This could also take the form of singing the praise of God, as in bhajans.

d) One frequently adopted form of meditation is self-inquiry, looking into the true nature of the self. In a contemporary version, it took the form of the well-known ‘Who am I?’ question one asks oneself constantly, as advocated by Sri Ramana Maharshi.

e) Just sitting and being aware (passively) of the mental contents is yet another form. Soto Zen and other forms advocate this meditation. Non-interference with what you observe is essential. There is and should be no goal for mediation. If there is a goal, meditation becomes contrived and you begin to interfere with the contents and generate conflict within yourself since you constantly calculate, measure and compare.

f) Many times this method is aided by focusing visually on a point on the wall, or the space between one’s eyebrows or just the breathing (watch the way breath enters the nostrils and leaves them. In some forms of meditation, being aware of your breath and counting the number of breaths constitute meditation. It has been long known in yoga practice that making exhalations slower than inhalations can indeed help one to relax.

g) Some other methods employ the instrument of thinking to create a space between oneself and one’s problem element such as a fear or depression by thinking about the whole picture, contemplate the consequences of actions, or the opposite side of an issue, or take another’s point of view and so forth. These too can result in freeing one, relatively speaking, from the problem one is currently facing and perhaps even develop detachment (Shankara’s Bhajagovindam and Buddhist descriptions of the body and prospect of the cremation ground come to mind). Some special types of meditation like Vipassana take an objective approach to one’s action and look at it as an impersonal process than done through one’s agency. The aim here, once again, is to fee one from an ego-centered point of view, thereby developing detachment. These types of meditation employ the instrument of thinking to counter or dissolve the problems created by the thinking process.

h) Also in Vipassana meditation, like in some other forms, awareness (or self-awareness, if you will) is interspersed between the perception of any part of the body or emotion of the mind, without interfering with the mind. Sweeping the floor being aware, watching how your foot step falls on the ground when you walk, being aware of how an emotion of anger rises, has its life and passes away, are some examples. This sort of awareness has not only the virtue of objectifying what one perceives, but also breaking up identification with it.

i) One frequently used form of meditation in contemporary practice is differential relaxation – focusing on each part of the body and relaxing it. In contemporary practice, one finds similar techniques to reduce pain. Focusing on one’s pain with awareness and breathing and relaxing deeply helps one being relieved from the pain.

j) Awareness in movement (much like meditation) as in Feldenkrais can be and has been used successfully in solving skeletal-muscular physical (perhaps psychological as well) problems. In some ways this is similar to practicing yoga asanas with breathing and awareness.

I can go on listing these methods.

Outcomes of Meditaton: The outcomes of meditation vary with the belief system one participates in or the method of meditation one uses: you may gain a vision of Christ or Krishna, you may experience God, you may feel oneness with the universe, you may have out-of-the-body experiences, you may lose all awareness of your body, you may feel that your head is missing, you may feel that your consciousness is expanding to encompass the whole universe, you may experience states of bliss or beatitude, or have a total sense of peace and harmony, or you may become part of the universal energy, and so on and so forth. The list is endless. Some may claim super sensual powers, peep into their past lives, have precognition, have psychic powers as well as powers to heal, not counting ability to know the internal structure of matter. Or your aim may be to simply relax and move into day-to-day chores with ease and a lightness of being.

Relaxation and Release: We need to examine the mechanisms or operation of meditation to see how it works and how it can help, if it does. In meditation you are either focusing or you are simply relaxing. In either case, you don’t interfere with the contents that show up either in the foreground or background of your consciousness. This is primarily reason why people who have been suppressing contents in their minds, or have problems facing their own undesirable thoughts, emotions or past experiences have no business meditating unless they can face up to everything that shows up in their minds when they meditate. But if you can let things go and not react as and when things show up, there is a genuine possibility of being released from the contents, particularly if you have gotten to the bottom rung of the ladder of the layers of a problem. One could term this process self-knowing or self-knowledge.

For example, fears. Normally we resist fear. But below the fear there is the threat we feel from the object of fear. And we dread the consequences of the threat. If we listen to the process of fear and all the consequences of the threat that we are afraid of, figure out what could be the worst consequence that could happen and let it be, then the object of fear will no longer pose a threat.

Or it could be frustration or conflict with another person or depression. Coming to terms with the happening which we dread or the not obtaining what we so cherish and desire, then we could obtain a release from either the fear or the frustration that is generated by the attachments, negative or positive to the objects. The same goes with attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.

In the process of meditation in terms of self-knowledge as described above, one could come to some very basic attachments, particularly to positive attachments to good health and life itself, and negative attachments to pain and to death. When we learnt to let these too go, we could arrive at a stage where nothing is important to live any more, not living or dying, and you are just plain consciousness. In that moment of consciousness or awareness, thought might appear just like sounds and experiences as mere images. You now have the ability to let them come and go. They have no longer the hold on you they had before or the charge. The emotional charge is dissipated, as it were. (Of course, this can also happen in confession or confiding with a friend.)

Self-knowledge in the sense described above implies the awareness of the contents of the self, and since the awareness is non-interfering, it could be described as an automatic process of detachment. In other words, in some way, we are shedding the contents of the self from ourselves.

Limitations: This freedom may be just momentary. You may fall headlong into a thought or an experience and react to objects of these as though they are currently happening. In other words, the attachments reassert themselves. You may have to go through the process again and again and release may only be momentary.

So the relief and release you obtain in meditation is relative and temporary. Don’t expect any permanent changes. The conditioning that generates the attachments may be too deep and perhaps even beyond the reach of your consciousness. And meditation may not be able to uproot these conditionings. You may have to accept meditation at that level; but it doesn’t mean it’s useless.

Relaxation is similar. To the degree that you are able to let things happen or go, you are able to relax. Or you might say, your ability to relax physically in the face of the various attachments or hang-ups that show up in consciousness is indeed what enables you to become released (detached) from them. This only shows that body and mind are not really two separate entities, but two aspects of the same entity (whatever that is – see my article on the mind-body problem on this blog).

You can re-invoke this consciousness by consciously letting go everything, even if it be for just a moment. The process can be progressive shorter, telescoping a whole lot of previous self-knowledge in just a moment, as it were. But then you are back again in the thought-game.

The primary reason why release of this sort is only relative and temporary is that underneath all conscious activity is a holding on to existence which is essential to the survival of the self, self in the psychological sense. The survival appears as physical survival – after all, the psychological is only a mental extension (or abstraction, if you will) of physical survival (that’s how it appears to the self). This holding on manifests itself as fear of death, of old age, of disease and most of all of pain, as well as the contrary side of seeking continuity through pleasure seeking (the opposite of avoiding pain. We can fool ourselves that we are totally free from all this holding, but when it comes to brass-tacks we fall headlong into these whenever the opportunity presents itself when we confront objects, persons, events or situations in life and in the world.

This is the reason why I say there is a radical difference between this relative freedom and total liberation where you are free from the will to live, free from the attachment to living or the negative attachment (fear of) to death, pain, disease and old age. You could only witness rarely among human beings. I could see that in UG at the time when he was face to face with death. From my own perception as well as a detailed account I have read by Mahesh Bhatt who was with UG until the last moment of death, I could say UG never cared whether he lived or died, never sought medical help[1] to become free from pain or sickness, I mean after he had gone through his ‘calamity’. And to me that’s radical. I don’t know if this is indeed desirable for any of us, but I do know that this is what constitutes true liberation, if there is such a thing.

Unfortunately, it is not subject to conscious choice, since, as far as the psychological self is concerned, this is tantamount to not just psychological, but actual suicide. No wonder, UG kept saying that in order for such a thing to take place there must be ‘clinical death,’ not that you can consciously choose to do that.

Feelings of Ecstasy, Energy: Once you are momentarily free from the contents of consciousness (i.e., the ego or self), at that moment, one may feel a surge of energy flowing through the body with or without the accompanying feeling of bliss. This can be (and is often) interpreted as experience of enlightenment; but tradition warns against such feelings, they are mere feelings and as such fleeting. The consequence of such feeling may well be that the person feels unburdened, lighter and refreshed for the rest of the day, unless and until some concern, worry or obsession, stemming from the past, of course, takes over.

But this is not what traditionally what liberation is supposed to be. If you are liberated, it’s final, once and for all. That I can’t see happening through conscious meditation and I give below my reasons for it. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen at all, it just means that it can’t happen through my conscious effort and will, nor by any deliberate meditation.

Critique: To repeat, meditation is an activity of the mind, although it is geared to let the mind cease its activity. It’s a suicidal process, not instantly, but as a gradual procedure. There is always hope behind this activity that it will eventually take us to our goal, namely, being free from all mental activity and the activity of seeking goals. But that’s a contradictory process. It will not succeed.

Practicing meditation is much like believing and having faith and praying. You could say that you can eventually become free from the self by keeping on practicing meditation; just like you could say if you have enough faith you can move mountains. If you haven’t succeeded, it’s your own fault. It means you haven’t done enough. This is a tautological requirement: you have meditated enough only when you have succeeded in becoming free from the self and you will succeed only if you have meditated enough.

So, you can go around, walking around, without doing any ostensive meditation. But your awareness doesn’t go away. You are stuck. You can’t go forward and you can’t go backward. Whatever is happening within you, you are still aware.

You keep going on endless loops, get more and more frustrated, and trying in various ways not to meditate, to meditate, measure results, watch the activity of the self, get frustrated again, try to let go of that activity, let go of everything, and so on and so on.

There are times when you don’t care what happens and are merely aware, but only to fall headlong into the habit of thinking and responding to the world through the self. This is an endless activity. And there is no end to it nor is there any hope.

You feel cornered.

But that too may not be a problem, given the nature of the mind – this is bound to happen. You are now declutched and then again you are clutched.

Possible Conclusions: What possible conclusions can we arrive at so far? 1) It’s a waste of time to meditate. 2) Meditation can at best help you arrive at State Zero, a neutral state of awareness, but it cannot help you stay in it, for it is an unstable state, volatile; you are back in the automatic conditioning cycle each time you have to respond to something in the world. Not only the conditioned mechanism is brought into play, but simultaneously the dualism between the self and the world comes into the picture. You cannot but respond to the world ultimately in terms of the self and its interests. (For instance, however much you are enlightened, you are back to your prejudices (caste, race and religion), and also to feelings of inferiority and superiority, seeking power, pleasure, sex, and what not.) Of course, through meditation you can work your way back to the state of pure awareness; but you have to do it again and again. It’s an endless cyclical process. Perhaps, you can telescope the process somewhat. That’s about the best you could do.

Possibility: When by some chance the mind does cease its activity, there is no meditation, and none necessary. You just are in the mode of being, not in the mode of becoming, getting somewhere, the future inviting us, haunting us. And there is tension in our minds pulling us forward toward the future. This restlessness will not cease until we give up the goal of achieving anything, including anything like self-liberation through meditation; it will not cease until the very goal to meditate ceases to be. Then there is neither meditation, nor any need to meditate.

When all activity of the mind stops, there is a respite. You are not meditating, nor are you not meditating. I used to say in my Eastern Philosophy class that you are truly meditating only when you are free from the very need to meditate. (Just as UG would say, you are truly free when you are free from the very concern to be free.)

I don’t know if I would call this liberation. It’s not liberation, if liberation implies some kind of permanent state. There are no permanent states. There is only a constant dynamic, a dynamic in which sometimes you respond to the world through the self and at other times there is no response. You just are. Nevertheless, as I discussed above, there is a radical change in oneself which called ‘true liberation’.

Question: Exactly what brings about the anchoring (I mean being ‘hooked’ to a thought or situation once again)? It’s clear that there are times when you are not anchored (UG’s ‘declutched’ state); and at other times, you are automatically connected to the mental contents and respond to the world as though you are a self. It couldn’t just be as UG says that the situation calls for it and brings it about, because there are situations in the middle of which you can ‘drop out’, declutch yourself.

Here is an answer: My mind goes out to repeating a habit pattern; in this instance, there is the urge or thought to play a computer game. Then a counter thought presents itself of how this is part of the pattern of restlessness, the chatter of the mind, and what not. The idea says that instead of going through the activity, just drop everything. Then, the thought simply drops out, at least for the moment. There is just nothing. You can say, its pure awareness; but it’s not aware of anything. Then also a jerking (like a shiver) in the body indicating an explosion of energy.

This is followed by the urge to record the event, as this gives a specific answer to the above question. Of course, this is also a mental activity. No wonder none of this lasts, because thoughts and what is generated by thinking can only last that long.

Then moments later, there is a strong urge to play a computer game once more. I being one who doesn’t fight his temptations, yield to it. I let the urge play itself through. The strength of the urge must be the force of habit, or what we might call karma. Restlessness follows. Then again a dropping of the thought processes and so on and so on. So goes the story.

And that’s about all you can do in meditation – masturbation!

Surely, there are a lot of mental contents: the head is abuzz with them. It’s not that there is any problem with them.

The self’s agendas are not so easily understood nor dealt with. Feeling important, having power, having control and feeling that in some way that I am better than anyone whom I compare myself with is a central agenda. So is the seeking of pleasure and avoiding pain. Greed, appropriation of things and people are a third. Of course, these motivations are all just different forms of the self to continue. Hence, of course, the fear of death.

* * *

Possible Objection from UG: UG would object to this account by saying that you don’t know that you are in a state of awareness except by means of thought. So, thought must very well be present when you are aware of your awareness in order to claim that you have that awareness.

Reply: This is a debate I had with UG a long time ago. I asked him that same question, “How do you know that there is such a state as the Natural State or whatever?” (You can watch this discussion in the video “What am I Saying?”) I don’t believe he gave a satisfactory answer. The best he could come up with are these two answers: “I don’t know,” and “Life is aware of itself.”

UG is not consistent when he is asking a question about the account I have given. I am not claiming that there is knowledge when I am in the state of just being aware. I am just saying that there is awareness. The knowledge of it may come later when I start thinking about it. And you can’t say that there can be no awareness when you think of it later. The least you can say is that there is memory (or trace) of that awareness when you think about it and that you may not longer be in that state. That account does not bother me. I am not claiming that awareness is aware of itself (although I could say that) and that is turned later into knowledge.

Nevertheless, I must grant UG this much: if this awareness is only a mental state and does not last for more than a moment, it is entirely possible that it is thought-generated and that we are back to square zero. For one thing, you don’t know that it exists except by recognizing or remembering it by means of your thought process. For another, it too is a state and has its origins, time of stay and disappearance.

Objection Extended: UG’s objections can also spread to detachment and as a matter of fact any other action consciously undertaken: because they are done consciously, from his logic it should follow they are done by means of thought. Consciousness must then equal thought. For instance, you cannot consciously detach yourself from anything, especially without an ulterior motive. Just the same way, you cannot freely give anything selflessly, because that is done consciously and therefore with self-centered motivation.

* * *

Another Reason Why Meditation is Frustrating: There is another profound reason why meditation is fundamentally frustrating: Our mind, i.e., thought process, which I can also call the process of the self, is a seeking mechanism. It constantly seeks to be some other place than where we are at the moment. This tendency manifests itself in a very basic way by trying to know whatever state we are in. In our constant search for fulfillment (and permanent happiness, as UG would put it), we seek and strive for a state of unbecoming from where we don’t travel any further. This is an endless process.

Even if such a state of permanent happiness or fulfillment ever exists, we are not content merely being in that state. We want to know and cherish that we are in that state. And that’s where the seeds of becoming are sown. That very urge to know our state not only puts us outside of that state in order to cherish it, but also makes us seek further to continue or enhance or preserve that state by whatever means. This knowledge or consciousness is the curse of the human condition, because it puts us in the merry-go-round of alienating ourselves from ourselves and then again trying to unite with ourselves.

Since the urge to know or be aware of what we are or what we are experiencing is inherent in any meditation process, meditation is a fundamental failure and has to end ultimately in frustration. The ill-gotten gains are momentary!

From all this it should follow, that you have to be left with utter despair, with no hope what so ever, and nothing you can do about it either.

Alternatives? Then what are the alternatives left? Wait for the ‘Calamity’ to happen, which might never occur? Be disillusioned with the whole ‘awareness’ business and ‘jump in the lake’, or accept your fundamental state of helplessness and keep going in circles (for we are called ‘wheels!’). The end result might be shortening or telescoping the mental process one goes through to drop the motivational structure piece by piece. Or one may just keep going in the business as usual until one dies and then the story really ends! The last seems to be more likely than anything else.

Gloom and Doom! You are doomed to fail and there is no way out! As usual, UG is right! There is no way out!

* * *

P.S.: Objection from Advocates of Meditation: I hear a strong objection from the advocates of meditation: it’s not true that meditation yields mere awareness. It could lead to knowledge. There is a means of knowing which is beyond the ordinary: that’s what results in extrasensory powers, healing, knowledge of God, other lives, even atoms and their inner structure.

Here I am treading a totally unknown territory. I don’t have to deny that there are such means and types of knowledge. It’s entirely possible that meditation (or prayer) clears the way for them. But since they are not universal, we don’t know and there are no known methods of accessing or controlling them. I am sure there are some who believe that there are, but I have no answer to them. UG himself is believed to have had some of those powers, but, even if he did have them, I don’t believe they were consciously cultivated.

[1] Except on rare occasions as when he consulted a doctor about his ‘plumbing problem’ (hiatal herinia) or when he wanted his teeth extracted by a dentist.