Alive and With A New Project

Well, more than a year since my last post and now I’m back.  Clearly, I’m not to be relied upon for blogable entertainment.  The thing is that I simply ran out of steam in the worst possible way – there was just nothing that seemed like it needed to be said.  Also, I got a new position at work.  Also, maybe some other things I don’t think I’ll tell the whole world about.  In any case, so it was, so it is.

But I have of late decided that there is something that would be interesting to do.  Interesting to me at least, hopefully interesting to others as well.  Indeed, I think it would be even more interesting if I were able to get some participation from others for this little project.  So if anyone out there is reading this and thinking that it sounds like it might be a fun thing to do, please give me a shout.

The short version of the project is this: methodically undertake a particular course of meditative practise and philosophical/psychological investigation and make a daily record of my own progress/outcomes (including my failures, of course) in order to try and effectively design a course of study to efficiently get people to a condition of ‘xxx’[1].  Enlist other interested parties (*cough* ‘guinea pigs *cough*) willing to engage in the program in order to properly evaluate its effectiveness and make tweaks… so if anyone out there is reading this and thinking that it sounds like it might be a fun thing to do, please give me a shout!

What is the background on this?  Well, I had just returned (this was two weeks ago) from a very fruitful retreat and I was giving a friend of mine (who I consider to have been very successful in this ‘xxx’ business[2]) the run-down on the retreat.  This led into a conversation about just why it is that there are so many Buddhists and yet so few Buddhas, so many advaita vedantins and so few… whatever you might call them.  There were a few reasons we batted about, but poor instruction struck us both as an important one.  Indeed, I think that this is particularly important because there is both a ‘stupid’ way to go about practise and a ‘smart’ way – and I have been very stupid.  I no longer want to be stupid and I would like to see others be less stupid as well.

Also, there are so many other practices that I think could be of value but which I’ve never investigated or investigated in any methodical way.  Hopefully, putting up a record and comparing my own experience with those of others will make a difference!

So, the logs begin tomorrow (though I’ve already sort-of chosen the plan of action and started yesterday) and the supplementary posts will follow.

Endnotes:

[1] This is to be defined later on.  Needless to say, I have a particular idea of what this means and this is based upon thought and practise that took place over the course of my internet absence for which I will have to fill in the details.

[2] Again, don’t panic!  I’m definitely not saying anything too outlandish about him, as you’ll all see when I get around to finally putting forward something that I consider to be a workable and realistic notion of what fills in the space marked ‘xxx’.

Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?

The “Variety” of Buddhist Meditation Techniques

Perfect posture

Just as happens in any large group of people who have been classed together for whatever reason, there is actually a rather widespread tendency among Buddhist sects to denigrate each of the others.  Mahayana Buddhists fairly reliably look down their noses at the practices of the Theravada, an attitude put on display by their choosing to stick to the term that their scriptural commentaries have for Theravada: ‘Hinayana’ (a derogatory term that is usually translated as ‘The Narrow Path’ but which apparently has linguistic connotations in Sanskrit that would be as negative as our calling it the ‘Nigger’s Path’).  Theravada practitioners (or the most traditionalist among them) reject any and all innovations or additions to Buddhist practice made since the historical moment at which they were the predominant school.  And Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists tend to look down upon everyone else and their practices, claiming that their Buddhism is the best.  As can be expected, then, there is much heated debate over whose meditation techniques are best.  This group says that its techniques are best and that the intelligent student of meditation will not waste any time working with those other guys’ methods.  That group says the first is wildly off-base – don’t practice samatha, that’s just the slow and selfish way to enlightenment, do shi-ne instead.  And then there’s Zen, which informs us that if you’re ‘meditating’ at all, then you’re doing it wrong – just sit there.  (Sometimes, I think the Zennies do this just to be confusing.)

What strikes me as absurd and funny (or very sad, depending on my mood) is that at the preliminary levels of practice, at least, there really isn’t all that much difference between the meditation techniques and aims advocated by the different schools.  Granted, preliminary instructions differ – some are to focus on a physical sensation (like the breath), some to ‘note’ or label thoughts and sensations, others are to recite a mantra, while yet others are not to ‘do’ anything in particular and just sit there – but these really do strike me as being rather unimportant differences since they all wind up doing much the same thing, in the end.  It’s like different techniques for opening a jar – some people will insist that one ought to run water on the lid to loosen it up, others will say that we should just use our bare hands, and others will say “find a man to do it for you” – but in the final analysis each one of these methods results in unscrewing the lid.  Just so for meditation.  Whether using a mantra or the breath as an anchor, or doing without an anchor at all, we are teaching ourselves the same skills – patience, perseverance, and sensitivity to the particularities of and non-involvement with the ever-shifting contents of conscious awareness.

So if you are interested in Buddhist meditation, my suggestion is not to worry about the supposed vast and grave ‘differences’ between the preliminary techniques offered by the various schools.  Instead, you should try out different techniques and see which of them is a ‘best-fit’ for your personal temperament and then devote yourself to that practice wholeheartedly.  Which bit of advice is, I believe, one teaching that is held in common among all the Buddhist schools.

Meditation: Why?

People often have interesting views of what meditation is about and what it entails.  They imagine that meditation is some spaced-out, totally groovy thing – that one closes the eyes and it’s like an instant hit of acid.  Others think that when we sit down we can just stop thinking and move into incredible trance states, just like that.  All these people are wrong – no instant trances (unless you’re Ron Swanson) and it’s definitely not much like an acid trip.  Meditation is rather more like this:

Let’s just say it: that seems pretty boring and pointless.  There are so many things that one could be doing with the day instead of sitting there silently, doing nothing while our minds whirl with stupid thoughts.  Boring and pointless it certainly can seem, but then so does jogging when we apply the same criteria.  Like jogging, however, meditation is done because it is good for you in the end (and also like jogging, if you keep up with it long enough, you actually start to like it).

So what besides ‘enlightenment’ (maybe you don’t believe in that) are the benefits of meditation?  First, meditation makes you more aware of what is going on in the mind, a skill that is of immense use when confronted with the world (e.g. by helping to prevent you from acting inappropriately or getting angry about things that just aren’t worth it).  Second, it makes concentrating more ‘natural’ for the meditator, which is of great use in many aspects of one’s life.  Third, it starts to feel an awful lot like a hygienic practice, like brushing the teeth for the brain, and you miss it when you haven’t done it that day, just like those mornings when you forget to brush your teeth.  Fourth, it eventually becomes sort of fun (if you can believe it) to observe the mind and try to pay attention, sort of like playing Tetris.

It’s a practice worth engaging in, if you don’t already.

Praxis, Meditation, and Ethics

Given that I have been so outspoken about the value and necessity of meditation for philosophers of mind, I think it important to make sure that I stay on top of my own practice!  So I introduce another set of categories: Praxis and its subcategories, meditation and ethics.  I will be posting reflections on meditation, as well as how to live a good life as I see it.