This was originally written for the Skepticality Blog on July 15, 2008. I doubt many people read the original in its entirety since it was rather long. I edited the content in an attempt to make it more palatable to the Twitter crowd. Mind you, it is still considerably longer than 140 characters.
Sometimes I write to help me gain a better understanding and the organization of my thoughts. This is one of those times. I normally write it to a document and file it away from my own private use.
Sometimes I post it for others to take apart, and perhaps for them to offer new perspectives. Regardless, here are some thoughts on Meditation . . . and other stuff.
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I was listening to Sam Harris on Point of Inquiry, and he had a little blurb regarding meditation. I believe he referenced meditation as an alternative to achieving a state akin to that experienced by religious belief; something about knowledge of self and surrounding. No, not knowledge; understanding. Understanding of the world around us, and ourselves, through introspection.
Scary as it might sound, it got me thinking. I wondered if my inability to ascribe to a faith-based belief is somehow related to my inability to meditate. Oh, I can hear it now. “Of course you can meditate! Here, sit, and tie your legs into a pretzel. Ignore the cracking. Now, close your eyes, empty your mind, and focus on a single thought.”
Sorry, not for me. Never been able to empty my mind; to concentrate on a single particular thing. Attempts to do so invariably end with me napping. If I have to contemplate a subject, I do it while involved in other mundane tasks. I dwell on it, I let it sit, I come back to it.
I believe most of the time I come up with decent notions, but I am not so arrogant as to pronounce it canon and reject input from others. Sure I will defend my understanding of the world, argue for it, and even resist accepting good arguments against it, but eventually, despite the desire for being recognized as “right”, I will cede to superior arguments. That exchange with others, that give and take, that building on collaborative efforts is what I believe advances human understanding of ourselves, and of the world around us.
I view both faith-based beliefs and meditation as attempts to gain awareness, and hence that same understanding of ourselves, and our surroundings. Faith-based belief does so through the acceptance of a worldview construct derived from a book ostensibly written under the influence of a divine force. Never mind the incongruous notion we are no more capable of understanding the written word of a presumed god than we are of understanding the very notion of a god. The attraction appears to be an orderly view of the world and our place in it.
Meditation strives for similar understanding, but it seeks it through conscious thought, or maybe unconscious thought, and focused self-awareness. I gather the idea is that understanding is locked deep within our minds, and all we need to do is open the floodgates. Enlightenment is the supposed opening of these gates, allowing our observable universe to be experienced through a sort of mental Rosetta Stone, whereas the relationship between ourselves and things around us is suddenly made clear and revealed to us.
For me, both are highly unsatisfactory as means to achieve understanding. Mind you, the underlying approaches are sound, but I believe the application lacks merit.
The book route is not much more than gathering, and benefiting from, knowledge from past thinkers and luminaries. The Bible and Koran are by no means the only books offering this guidance, although they are probably the best known. A problem arises when blind acceptance of the interpretation by self-appointed “holy” charlatans replaces our ability to reason through, and interpret, the writings on our own. What should be a useful reference, a springboard for new ideas, becomes a tool to build a power structure through which many are controlled for the benefit of the few. It appalls me when I ask a believer a question and they have to “consult” accepted canon before answering it. They are turning their back on the very gift their supposed god gave them; the ability to reason for themselves.
The meditation route is nothing more than the recognition, to the extreme, that we are conscious individuals capable of reason and independent thought. Again, where I see it failing is that introspection on its own is self-limiting. Of course, that is my perception of it. Others may sit and think, and think, and think, and think, and eventually come up with something that makes sense to them. It’s suspect because for all I know they dozed off, had a dream, and called it enlightenment. I personally find it limiting because it does not involve the free flow of ideas. No discussion, no counterpoints, and no challenges. It also involves the notion similar in many ways to that of a deity; knowledge and understanding of the universe is somehow locked within each one of us, and can be had merely by thinking about it. Perhaps I misunderstand meditation, but that is my view of it since that is how it has been described to me.
Call meditation “reasoning”, or awareness that we are capable of conscious thought, and I’m right there with you. I’m big on thinking, reasoning, and being aware every waking hour of the day. I call it active contemplative living (actually I don’t have a name for it, but could not resist the opportunity to come up with one).
I would argue, and I would do so even though I’m sure others will disagree, the vast majority of individuals live not in a contemplative way, but in a reactive way, so as to almost short-circuit or bypass the very idea of consciousness, or awareness of one’s self, of one’s place among others, and of the world that surrounds us.
The point is, awareness is the key; awareness of ourselves as conscious, thinking, and reasoning beings. Awareness that people around us are also conscious, thinking, and reasoning beings. I applaud meditation and holy books if the goal is to make us aware of our surroundings and ourselves. For example, teach the golden rule as a means of bringing to the forefront awareness for the person sitting across from you having approximately the same expectations as you do, the same fears, the same hopes, and deserving the same respect you claim for yourself.
I deplore meditation and holy books if the aim is to provide a canned answer to life’s constant learning process; canned answers that limit that process, and consequently our growth. As much as one may want to strive for definitive (simple) answers, definitive (simple) truths, the reality of our lives, our world, indeed our universe, is that everything is in constant motion, constantly changing, and impossible to be constrained by static ideas or momentary understanding. Our thinking must be as flexible and dynamic as the world we inhabit. It must also be rooted in the recognition our want and desires are no more than drops in a much larger pool of similar wants and desires.
No, I’m not offering insight, or any answers beyond the notion that if one is respectful of their surroundings and the lives contained therein, and if one is flexible in one’s thinking, and if that can be duplicated in the billions, this would be a better place. I also put forth the idea that acceptance of intolerant views and self-centered understanding, while offering seemingly easy solutions and easy answers to life’s problems, is in fact a sure path to misery for all. It saddens me so many choose the comfort of the later over the challenges of the first.
Quote from the movie Joe Versus the Volcano
Patricia: My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.