Sunday 13 March 2016

Undirected (or arbitrary, practice) meditation doesn't go anywhere - there must be purpose

Most people who advocate 'meditation' have in mind something which is undirected, often deliberately anti-purposive, often passive and responsive - and there may well be a training in such meditation with exercises, instructions, breathing practices etc.

(The current fad for 'mindfulness', for example, comes under this heading.)

After expending quite considerable time and effort on such things, observing the effect on people who have expended even more time and effort on such things, and on theoretical grounds - I believe this type of meditation does not go anywhere, does not lead to positive personal transformation, and is not helpful in our primary life task of theosis (i.e. becoming more divine)

Undirected meditation may, therefore, be 'therapeutic' in the sense of making someone feel better or perhaps even function better; but it does not of itself lead to genuine spiritual progression - and may indeed stand in the path of it.

Meditation is a means to an end, which implies that the end is more important than the means - and you need to know where you are aiming before you set-out: including that we must have a goal before we meditate, each meditation should be driven by some real and personally-compelling purpose and need, and meditation should be honed and developed according to how well those goals are being reached.

Useful meditation therefore requires a valid metaphysical understanding of reality - in other words some approximation of Christian knowledge. Then meditation can be deployed for Christian goals - eg. (and these are only examples) as a kind of prayer to seek understanding or to clarify existing understanding, to seek revelations, to commune with the divine, to seek for strength and courage, to alleviate incipient despair and become re-infused with hope... that kind of thing.

So, when meditating, if it is to be more than merely some kind of self-induced 'trip', health spa experience, or more than merely relaxation and un-winding; then:

1. Meditation must be purposive

2. The purpose must be valid and Good

3. The method and style and mechanisms of meditation are likely to be personal - not stereotypical nor standard

In sum, meditation cannot really be taught but must be individually learned by trial and error.

And this is possible because when there is purpose, then each person is able to monitor his own attempts and to evaluate his own success at meditating; especially since there are several other sources to check the results of meditation against for validity - church teachings, scripture, reason, help from trusted spiritual advisers... and so on.

So meditation is an adventure of personal discovery; but like all real adventures it cannot be an aimless, passive wandering; but must have some purpose, direction and point to it.

Meditation will not reveal or teach you the meaning of life - it is one of the means by which you may choose to pursue what you already know to be the meaning of life.


Junnies said...

spiritual teachers who advocate undirected meditation have the metaphysical assumption(in some cases, realisation) that life is inherently perfect/complete, but that it is our (ego)conditioning that disconnects us from this experience and realisation. but, because of the conditioning we have (taken on in childhood and then perpetuated, for most people, for the rest of their lives), there is this sense that life is imperfect/incomplete and that we must do or achieve something to fill the hole/deficiency we feel in our lives.

the 'purpose' of undirected meditation, therefore, is to acclimatise the mind with non-doing, with Being, to 'practice' simply Being oneself, instead of acting according to one's conditioning. from this pov, meditation can lead to spiritual progress if it is successful in helping a person decrease his egoic conditioning and connecting him with his Being-ness. the ideal end is that as one becomes (relatively) free of conditioning, then the individual feels whole, connected, at peace, and feels one with life and other people.

(the above is unfortunately rarely understood even by most meditation teachers, and there are many who practice 'undirected' meditation but don't understand the purpose of it, and remain quite beholden to their conditioning outside of their meditative periods.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@l - I agree that is the assumption.

One said...

Meditation is a stepping stone to a state of mind where there is little or no mind, rather just direct experience.

In terms of spiritual development it all depends on what is defined to be spiritual. Christians have often in my reading taken a dim view of meditation, or been clearly against it.

In Yoga, which is my main pursuit and base of direct knowledge, everything from Christ to countless other beliefs would be regarded as manifestations of mind. These are seen as not quite illusions, they are the Astral planes, and seen as real in a way, but they are also partly or fully constructs of human consciousness.

The only purpose of meditation in this view is Awakening, which is to Awaken to the reality before us. And only that, though some systems are more bliss-producing and some more austere.

I tend to see meditation as leaning towards being antagonistic to Christianity because Christianity is all about other dimensions.

Hinduism and Yoga is however fairly accepting of Christ as at least an advanced Yogi and at most an incarnation of the Divine.

I'm not sure what I think of the notion of directed meditation for a purpose. This is a trap of mind again on the surface. While I see how Christians would want this to somehow come together it seems that there is some muddying of definitions and purposes.

Is meditation by your definition prolonged thought on a subject? In Yoga this is called contemplation and is well known as a stepping stone to meditation. It's not the same though.

In Yoga there is a branch called bhakti, the path of devotion. There are exercises which suggest focusing on a great spiritual teacher such as Jesus. One can meditate directly on Jesus Christ and through contemplation, meditation and then absorption become closer to Him and more like Him. This would likely be a good foundation for Christians if they wanted to combine real meditation with devotion to Christ.

Anonymous said...

I agree that meditation should be placed within a metaphysical construct. I also believe that its purpose must always to be to contact and know the divine. The metaphysical construct need not be Christian, although that is my construct. For example, an Indian Hindu's construct of divine reality will be Hinduism's explanation of divine reality. It is their cultural reality, it is what they know, and I believe it is the divine's contact with that people.

At the mystical level, I hope that divine reality makes itself known in a greater way than it does in every day 'reality'. I also suspect that the divine will accept any good religious explanation of reality as a conductor between the person and the divine. The fact that I think the Christian religion is the best and true explanation of the divine will not matter to the divine who is being contacted by the non-Christian religious person. He will accept any religious approach with good at its heart. In fact, I suspect strongly that He will accept any approach even if it is bad, so long as the person making the contact has good intentions and firmly believes that what he does is good. (In the same way that Aslan says anything bad you did in my name, you really did it in the name of Tash, and anything good you did in the name of Tash, you really did it for me, and I accepted it).

I base this thinking on an overall belief that mystical connection with the divine ends up in the same intimate place - the one creator God.

The mystical methods employed do differ, but they tend to have features in common. The most basic aspect is the most common, and its seems to me to be essential, and further, it must be learned, and that is the ability to achieve a form of concentration on one thing for a long period of time - a quiet where only one thing fills the whole person. Most people find this very difficult and it takes some self training to conquer the mind, and the distractions all around.

The idea is to pick an object or thought and learn how to concentrate and think about it only. I don't believe that this is mystical connection with the divine, not at all. But I do think that it is an ability that is necessary to master - the right wave length if you like. If it is not mastered, then I think contact with the divine is impossible in that direction - person to God. Of course, God to person is always possible, but rare. St. Paul is an obvious example.

At this first, and non-mystical level, the good metaphysical construct is not absolutely necessary. However, I would say that it is wise to use something good and preferably linked to the divine. Love, God, beauty, wisdom, or any other obviously good object of concept will do. But if a blue porcelain bowl is something that you find easier to use, then that will do - just make sure that the bowl is beautiful, clean, serene.

If your intentions are bad when you attempt mystical communication with God, He won't listen, but something will. The point here is that the Satanists use the same techniques for mystical communication. You need to be careful.


Bruce Charlton said...

@One - Well the meditation you describe it the type I believe goes nowhere - or nowhere good. For example, I know a some serious Zen meditators who have done it for decades - the results are not impressive to me.

One trouble is that people who *do* meditate well with good fruits, sometimes assume that what worked for them and met their needs will work of others and meet their needs - and end up prescribing a technique of routine and repetitive exercises.

Rudolf Steiner, unfortunately, fell into this trap in my opinion - and while Steiner himself was immensely impressive (to me) in a religious and spiritual sense; his disciples and followers are not. His elaborate instructions and detailed exercises just don't seem to have worked - and this is not surprising to me, since they are dull and trivial - because unrelated to each ndividual's spiritual needs.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seeker - You are prescribing a single method here - "a form of concentration on one thing for a long period of time - a quiet where only one thing fills the whole person" - I disagree, I think this is just one of many types of meditation; and probably irrelevant to many or most people's requirements.

The reason many people find it difficult is that it does not answer to their personal needs. Learning to concentrate on some 'thing' given by someone else as a topic or when that thing is regarded as not-mattering (since it is the concentration that is being exercised) is simply learning a cognitive trick - and if success at mastering the method is assumed to yield valid results, then this will lead to errors.

JP said...

What is your view of Buddhist meditation? It is purposive, but the purpose is not "Christian knowledge".

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - As I said above (wrt Zen) I don't find the results impressive. For example, some of the best known Western Buddhists do not impress me with their fruits - quite the reverse!

Anonymous said...

Dr Charlton: "and if success at mastering the method is assumed to yield valid results, then this will lead to errors."

The method is learned only to achieve an ability to concentrate for long periods without giving in to distraction. The error is thinking that this is mystical in and of itself - it isn't. But it does give the person a tool that helps an easier connection with the spiritual. After that point is reached, I think it is for each person to use the ability in his or her own way within the context of their metaphysical construct.

An analogy might be learning to use a saw well in order to make planks. The saw is not the objective, but learning to use it well enables the user to make planks better than making planks with his bare hands.

I paint, and I know that I paint best when a certain form of unconscious, quiet, intentional, unforced discipline 'happens'. I also write fiction. A similar 'happening', and my writing is much better. In both cases, writing fiction and painting, when it 'happens', I have a strong conviction of validity and truth in my work.

I suspect that the state of (mind? - spirit?) - well, the 'state' in good writing and painting is of the same order of 'thing' as the state required for mystical connection with the divine. And to learn how to 'do it' at will, instead of only 'when the muse takes me' is a valuable and, I think necessary step into the mystical.

Those who find their own way into the mystical are doing the same thing, only they might find progress slower because they are groping around in the light to find their way in. I don't think it will do any harm to learn a tool that helps find a way in by time honoured methods. But, of course, if a person finds a way in by their own method that is good too.

The thing is to find a way 'in'.


JP said...

"some of the best known Western Buddhists do not impress me with their fruits"

I didn't mean them - I mean the genuine Eastern Buddhists.

One said...

Bruce, interesting points. Yoga is not Zen. It's true that in the end there is a lot of overlap - there is a dissolution of concept/mind in both cases - but in my experience Zen is too austere and leaves too much out. It's a kind of stripped down Buddhism. I agree the results are not impressive with the people I've met either. Zen lacks transformative bliss. Yoga has it.

Regarding individual needs one thing I like about Yoga is there are many branches for each person's disposition. If you haven't read it I recommend Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. This book has a great deal of mystically inspired thought on the overlap of Yoga with Christianity.

You mention Rudolf Steiner, and he's an example that overlaps with Christ. There is serious decline since His life with sporadic outbursts of greatness mainly among mystics and monks. From Zen practitioners to Yogis to Christians it's always only been a tiny fraction of spiritually minded people who ever get it regardless of type of practice.

It's interesting to me how this subject of meditative practice creates so much faltering. For example Colin Wilson had the 'pencil trick', the exercise to focus and relax to create a peak experience. Yet neither he nor I nor anyone I've read has persisted with this even though I thought it was a good technique.

Is there a form of meditation which has impressed you with the transformative results over time?

Bruce Charlton said...

@One - Well I'm afraid I personally do not like the results of yoga either - I have known one eminent practitioner (wrote books), and a supposedly properly trained teacher, and I have read about the exploits of native-born Indians and a book or two by them... The effect on me is a mixture of revulsion and pity.

Yoga (in its origins) seems motivated by a desperation to escape the sufferings of the human condition extended across incarnations, reincarnation making the suffering even worse because it is inescapable by suicide. This I find very understandable - but as a response to suffering, I find it difficult to differentiate from intoxication, or a frontal lobotomy or some other attempt to remove from humans what is human.

I am not putting forward any superior or specific form of meditation - but the opposite; first, not everybody needs or benefits from meditation (it is not a panacea - but a means to some other end).

Secondly, that valid/ effective/ life-enhancing meditation methods are - and should be - individual.

CW's pencil trick did something for him, for a short time - but looked-at overall Colin Wilson's life was one of compulsive overwork fuelled by over-spending. (I am not meaning to reject CW - I have in fact come to he computer this morning directly after re-re-re-reading some parts of Strength to Dream).

In a spiritual sense, the most impressive thing I find about him was that he remained through his long life unembittered, open, generous - he didn't get that closed-off, resentful and embittered look and style which affects so many modern intellectuals and writers (JK Rowling comes to mind). I think he talked so often about the pencil trick because he wanted to be helpful; but I think it probably wasn't helpful but actually trivializing.

My views on meditation are, as indicated by the reference, much influenced by William Arkel, who does seem to me a wondderful example of a successful and spiritual, modern meditative man.

If you listen to this recording of a talk by Arkle, focusing on the last part from about 1 hour, 13 minutes - (scroll down to find the download link)

You can hear Arkle responding to a question from his friend Nigel Blair - in which Blair is trying to get Arkle to recommend meditation, but Arkle - rather sarcastically! - rejects this as looking for 'short-cuts'. Over the last 15 minutes of the Q&A Arkle clarifies that each person needs to 'quarry out' their own path - and that this struggle to find a path is a vital and beneficial part of the educative process of mortal life.

So, I would say that the teaching of standard meditative practice is often driven by the desire to find short-cuts, or the (kindly, but mistaken) desire to make things easier for other people - when in reality this kind of spiritual struggle, and the experiences which result (including the failures - so long as they are acknolwedged to be failures, and repented) is core to the purpose of life.

In other words, the lack of a single clear path to theosis (including the lack of a one valid effective meditative practice) is not an accident! but part of God's design of this world.

Junnies said...

When asked once by Swami Yogananda, a Swami with a large following in America, what spiritual instruction should be given to the people for their uplift, Ramana Maharshi (a widely venerated indian sage) replied: “It depends on the temperament and spiritual maturity of the individual. There can be no mass instruction.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@l - Yes. It is part of Eastern Wisdom to recognize that that individual, face to face, teaching ought to be the normal way of teaching - this insight is also found in Eastern Orthodoxy with the tradition of Spiritual Fathers.

It is the method of apprenticeship, about which I have written on this blog (if you do a word search you can find the posts) - but in the West (and indeed in Orthodoxy, probably) the tradition has been broken and the Masters are gone or lost; so we are in the position of needing to work things out for ourselves, by trial and error and repentance.

This is slower, but probably - in the end - potentially leads to a deeper understanding, so long as the nature of the situation is appreciated. At any rate it is the situation we are in - whether by bad luck, bad choices, or design - and so we must begin from where we are.

Anonymous said...

Dr Charlton: 'the tradition has been broken and the Masters are gone or lost ...'

I think that God will always provide a person, or people along the way of life for each individual to progress in theosis as far as they are able. Those people will arrive at the right times. These days they are unlikely to be priests, and could be anyone who is further along the path. Those furthest along the path will be conscious that they can help others and will see it as a duty to do so. Using your term, I suggest they are guiding entities in human form, who take it upon themselves to explain divine reality to those who can and will listen. In explaining divine reality, they are also extending and expanding divine reality's reach of consciousness.

Any person who takes on the role of guiding entity is in the Master class of person. What we cannot expect is to go along to the local temple and pledge ourselves as disciples of the resident Wise Man. Masters may come into our lives from the most extraordinary and unlikely backgrounds, and it may be some time before we realise, if we ever do, that a person is such a one. Even if we do not realise it, it does not mean that the Master cannot help us along the way. Indeed the Master may recognise that the pupil is not ready to be told the relationship, which in fact subsists between them, and the Master will do the work that he can with that person, and then move on.

I feel this to be true in a strong way - and it is my intuitive feeling that this is correct that is my evidence. I can't provide any other.