On Meditation As A Western Practice

(x-posted to The Valve)

Dear readers,

Many of the people I know, myself included, have tried meditating at some point in their lives. I know some people who have gone to meditation retreats for days or weeks. I don’t currently meditate, but I have been considering starting up again. I’m finding it hard to begin again, though, because I fundamentally don’t know what meditating means.

Now, of course, it may not be necessary to know what meditating means. It is relaxing, it is supposed to clear the mind, and that is perhaps sufficient. Yet I am uneasy about the fact that Westerners who meditate do so in a widely divergent manner, and that there is no consensus on how one should meditate or about its nature as a discipline. Furthermore, meditating is almost universally considered a healthy practice, in the same way as “getting exercise.” If I told you that I sat in a warm bath for fifteen minutes a day, you might not have much reaction at all, or you might consider me a bit self-indulgent. However, if I announce that I meditate for fifteen minutes every day, most people will act as though I’ve admitted to great willpower and good sense.

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Meditation is valuable to us because of the way we moralize about thought. If I can hold one focus for fifteen minutes, I feel not only as though I’ve eliminated distracting thoughts — I feel as though I’ve achieved a victory over modern life, with its constant stream of things competing for my attention. To surrender to a flood of stimuli tends, upon reflection, to make us anxious, as though we are becoming less self-directed and more passive. We see ourselves as protagonists in a story in which we must overcome the Internet, cellphones, advertising, and the rest, in order to achieve prosperity and selfhood.

In reality, there are many situations in which we have to respond to a lot of simultaneous information, and where a “short attention span” is a necessity. A variety of professionals, including investors, sports players, press agents, and teachers, have to thrive amidst sensory overload. If “mindfulness” has any meaning for these vocations, it means adapting to the flow of information in order to act quickly and correctly. Still, this is quite different in practice from sitting down with a book, or carrying on a single conversation for hours.

We should be suspicious of a practice that has supposed benefits, but no possible downside. Even exercising, done incorrectly, can cause injury or exhaustion, a fact of which we are all aware. In truth, there are some studies of meditation that suggest it can be a negative experience for people repressing severe traumas (if they are not prepared to face repressed material), as well as for people with a weak sense of self. But these findings are rarely discussed, and they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. If meditation is really as important to our psychic lives as philosophy, shouldn’t we view it in an equally critical, questioning light? Great debates ought to arise between people who favor a mantra, and those for whom “focusing on your breathing” is the correct way to practice. The definition of mindfulness should be studied and debated. There should be substantive comparisons between Indian yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Zen meditation, and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist forms. All of us should wrestle with the relationship between meditation and everyday life. Does it reveal the emptiness of all material things, and the absurdity of attachment? Is it concentration or meta-cognition?

One can say, easily and with great shows of serenity, that it is all these things, or that it is ineffable. Neither is really an answer. For many secular people, and even for people with loose religious ties, meditation is really replacing prayer. The risk is that it becomes a stagnant practice, its victory over modern “noise” a surrender to forces driving us away from life. We ought to try to learn, from each other, where each of us goes when we enter into that stillness.

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