Coming Back to the Cushion, Gunning for Stream-Entry

I never really stopped meditating, per se, I just wound up doing less of it, less frequently than I had done in the past. I got busy with other things and tired from the increasingly hectic pace of work – to the point where now, for now, I’m always on-call for the company. It’s hard to make / take the time to sit when you get home tired and the phone rings every half hour with some issue needing your attention (or kids, kids could be bad for it too), but over the past couple months I’ve been ramping up my sitting time and ignoring the phone more assiduously (having figured out that they’ll figure it out). And as, and as much as, the monkey-mind settles down, my motivation to practise increases.

Once upon a time, I was determined to make it to stream-entry (Theravada Buddhist talk for the first stage of enlightenment). At some point, I’m not sure when exactly, it went away. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that instead of the desire going away, it was more that the goal seemed out-of-reach, sort of like dreams of stardom are for many people. The sort of case where it is not so much that one wouldn’t love to be famous, or that one wouldn’t immediately give up ordinary life if fame descended upon her in some form, but more like the acknowledgement and acceptance that life probably just won’t allow her that experience: discouragement. Just so, I became discouraged that awakening is an experience that I could experience.

But lately – and I don’t know whether it’s the increased cushion-time, having just made it through a difficult moment for the family, re-reading old books that make it seem doable, or just knowing that my work situation is going to become both less intense and allow me lots of time to dedicate to practising – the goal has seemed so achievable. So I’m shooting for that – I’m shooting for stream-entry.

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.

Meditation and Philosophers of Mind

Although it will cause offence, I must admit to thinking that any philosopher of mind who refuses to practise some (broadly but appropriately defined) form of meditation is a fool.  Why?  Historically, philosophizing about the mind has arisen from phenomenological facts about our common experiences and how they could possibly fit into reality.  The trick is, meditation, engaged in diligently and over a long enough period of time, demonstrates that our naive phenomenology is actually wrong about a great many things.  In addition to helping with our direct or personal phenomenology, meditation communities have developed extensive theoretical/classificatory phenomenological schemas which are, in principle, testable (albeit, not necessarily by the  third-person methods favoured by laboratory science).  What analytic philosophy of mind desperately needs is a phenomenology of just this sort, both to help it get its concepts straight, but also to help it map phenomenology to neurobiology – a task that is of critical theoretical import for both materialists and dualists alike.