Monday 11 April 2016

Meditation as Thinking-Practice: Escaping the prison of thought habits

Diagnosing the problems of modern Western life is not so difficult - the alienating mental prison of deadness, purposelessness, meaninglessness that we inhabit; knowing what ought to be done to improve the situation is much more difficult but still reasonably widespread; but actually escaping from that prison to inhabit a better place is extremely rare.

The reason is that habits of thinking which have become ingrained through our childhood and development, and which are sustained because they are the basis of public life and discourse - so that innumerable hourly interactions keep us in the bad-old-ways of thinking.

The way out from prison therefore involves more than just knowing we are in prison, and more than knowing where we want to escape-to - because the escape destination is intrinsically our-own-selves, we actually need to create our own destination by transforming our-own-selves, in the face of opposition from our current selves backed-up by almost all the forces of culture.

Since we live-in our own thinking, the new destination can be conceptualised as a new way of thinking - that is a thinking based on a new set of metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of the world (its origin, purpose, meaning etc).

So, each of us needs to practice thinking; specifically to practice thinking based on the desired metaphysics.

Meditation is the general name given to the activity of practicing thinking - so meditation is the first and major activity which is needed.

Thinking-practice = a type of meditation.

This is where people begin to differ - because the nature of meditation must have the proper aim - must be aiming at the desired destination; this effects the actual nature of the meditation (and the nature of meditation - i.e. the type of thinking that is being practised - is extremely varied); and having chosen a possible method of meditation, then comes the absolutely vital 'subjective' element - that topic or content of meditation which must be practised.    

But how best, how effectively to 'practice' the desired thinking is not immediately obvious - and is indeed a matter of some dispute. But one aspect I would like to highlight is that personally effective meditation cannot be a matter of forcing ourselves through routine practice.

Effective thought practice means practicing the kind of thinking which we want to become habitual - and that kind of thinking must be alive, engaged; a thinking deriving from the new metaphysics; a thinking which is about purpose appreciated in the world as well as itself purposive; a thinking which is filled with hope, as well as hopeful in its intention.

In sum, when meditation is understood as thinking-practice, we recognize that meditating itself must be an activity of the desired kind: self-aware, alert, purposive, positive, hope-full, energizing - we must meditate-about the kind of things we have as our ideal.

Therefore each person will need, by trial and error and taking into account his own disposition and preferences, to devise some themes of meditation and methods for maintaining his own stream of thinking along the lines of such themes.

It is a question of 'what works for you' as a means to that end - for me, it is mainly a practice of thinking by writing... note-taking to hold my thinking onto the purpose, record that thinking, responding to my notes. In general, the act of writing is used to control my thinking, to keep it on-topic, to keep it along the right lines.

(The actual notes are merely a means to that end, and need never be looked at again.)

But I discovered this type of meditation for myself, by trial and error, and I am sure it would not suit everybody. So if you have not yet discovered what works for you - that that should be your first goal.

The second goal is, for each session of meditation, to choose a topic which is something both desirable as a themes for practise, and also effective for you personally; some thing which involves thinking in the way you want to become habitual (thinkig that is assuming a living, conscious, purposive universe of meaning, love and inter-relationship...); and also is a theme that is positive and enjoyable to yourself.

(For instance, today my theme - one which delighted and spontaneously engaged me - was reading and making notes on parts of a particular lecture by Owen Barfield.) 

Then you can start practicing-thinking.


David Balfour said...

It seems that the initial section of this post is analogous to a focus on changing core beliefs (in this case metaphysical assumptions), as in a traditional CBT formulation, but we both know that CBT is a radically incomplete and misguided model when applied in a secular context. For a start in modern CBT any core belief will do as long as it makes the person using it feel good about themselves. Clearly this is *not* what a core belief should be selected as desirable for. What is required is an aiming at core beliefs that are in harmony with our fullest possible understanding of spiritual reality, which means, for many or most, the aims of meditation will appear mad, bad or irrelevant. So effective meditation is only likely to occur on the other side of a spiritual conversion. But then again the need for spiritual conversion will more than likely be denied and so there is an impass. At a minimum it seems a theoretical acceptance of 'seeing the world in this way would be good for me' is a required starting point otherwise you may as well come and see me at work and I will (reluctantly) provide secular meditation self - help material with as much as a spiritual focus as is possible by 'meeting someone half way' and within the constraints that I am not allowed to be explicitly religious in my sessions and must be a mythical neutral and non-judgemental being in accord with the health services broader fantasy.

In my personal experience, however, I find that Buddhism offers some very accessible and powerful approaches to meditative practice although as a Christian I now see 'the ends' of meditation as very different.

For example, the notion that all sentient beings are sacred and precious is to me very powerful. Buddhism taught me to look at even a fly with wonder, awe and respect instead of just swatting it away. Nowadays I have developed a habit of meditating that involves something like the following: if I see a person or child or animal or even a flower I remind myself that these things are sentient beings, that they are created by God and I allow myself to feel the sense of love and affection that spontaneously arises and a sense of wonder that arises when I consider the dance of intricate physics, biology and chemistry and living spirit that is inherent in their simple existence. If it is a person, child or animal I smile at them and consciously project feelings of warmth towards them. I might say a prayer like 'God loves you' or 'May you find peace and friendship with God' or 'Wake up!' when I see someone is lost in distraction.

When I am in nature I try to allow my consciousness to become like a animist, to some extent, I look at the heavens and talk to heavenly father, I pray to him, thank him for all I can see, smell, hear and sense. If a bird chirps in a tree I think of the song of life and how this is an expression of God's creative play, if I see a tree I think of the centuries that have passed and the dramas of people's lives it must have witnessed that seem trivial in a more eternal perspective, it reminds me that humans can be very myopic and need to strive for an eternal perspective. Sometimes with that thought in mind I will sit with the tree and for a moment (only if no one is around or it would seem too weird) imagine I am part of the woodland watching the seasons come and go.

So I agree we need personal meditations and in principle almost anything can be made into a meditation but contact with nature, cherishing all forms and expressions of life and creative play like drawing or painting or playing the guitar work best for me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - The insuperable problem of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is that it is located in an extreme polarity of the positivist, materialist, reductionist metaphysics (this is also why it is so popular among the bureaucracies). So nothing much can be done in that paradigm!

A much better - indeed potentially excellent and positively life transforming - model is Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step programme; which of course requires theism.

What I am trying to get away from here is the prescription of content-indifferent meditational 'exercises'.

Also to address the problem that on the one hand meditation must be essentially from-within and involve a lot of spontaneous and self-driven *thinking* (it must be active not passive); while on the other hand we need something 'external' to keep us 'on task'.

Seeker said...

Well done and thank you - very clear guidance - just what I wanted.


John Fitzgerald said...

Your recent posts have brought the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev very much to the forefront of my mind. It's an idea that goes back to the Middle Ages and Joachim of Flore, but Berdyaev talks a lot in his writings of the 'three ages' - The Age of the Father (Old Testament law), The Age of the Son (New Testament redemption) and the Age of the Spirit, yet to come, where, according to Berdyaev, man gives something back to God - man assumes his theosis and takes on his full stature as a son of God. This transformation, this 'eighth day' will reveal itself, Berdyaev believed, through an outpouring of Divinely-inspired creativity. Man becomes a kind of 'co-creator' with God.

It's a philosophy that sails quite close to the heretical breeze, of course, but it's always held an appeal for me. I find resonances with Tolkien's concept of Sub-creation, with Barfield's theme of spiritual evolution and with certain esoteric Catholic notions concerning the complementary roles of the 'Church of Peter' and the 'Church of John.'

What we most need today, in my view, is a resacralisiation of how we see, feel, experience and live in the world. This has been another key motif in your recent posts. 'The Magical World of the Inklings' by Gareth Knight, a leading white magician, is absolutely superb in this respect. It's exactly the kind of book one would give a concerned Christian who might be feeling concerned about some of the borderline 'occult' stuff that goes on in Williams and Lewis to an extent. Knight knows the risks but he's also read his Coleridge and knows that the Imagination is the great, too-long undervalued gift of God that, if used in a spirit of service to God and His creation, can transform our own lives and the world around us,

The Imagination can heal the Wasteland, to use Grail terminology, and the Inklings are nothing less than apostles of the contemporary imagination, prophets and heralds of the coming (even if it is after an apocalyptic crash) Age of the Holy Spirit.