Philosophy and Meditation
Philosophy and Meditation
Though meditation today is often presented as a way to better health and well-being, it also has a significant potential for interaction with philosophy. More and more people engage in some form of meditation. The focus is usually on the benefits of meditation for mental and physical health. Rarely it is pointed out that the original aim of meditation was a deeper experience and knowledge of true reality.
The word «meditation» comes from the West (deriving from the Latin verb meditari, which means to think or reflect about something). While the forms of meditation that have become widespread today have Eastern origin, Western forms of meditation have largely been forgotten. In the Western tradition, the word “meditation” is related to «contemplation», which goes back to that which in Antiquity was considered to be a higher form of knowledge, i.e. theoria, an intellectual intuition, a «seeing thinking», of the essence things as they really are. This renders perspicuous the connection between meditation and the history of philosophy. One of the most well known works in the history of philosophy even has “meditation” as a part of its title: René Descartes’ «Meditations on First Philosophy». If we understand meditation as it is in this work, as a thorough and focused reflection on a topic, then there is no real distinction between philosophy and meditation.
But meditation is much more than reflection. Some will also claim that meditation is something opposed to thought, that it is an activity that cannot be captured by concepts. In other words, there are two questions we will examine here. If we understand meditation as something more than normal philosophical thinking, what significance can meditation and philosophy have for each other? And what can be said in response to the claim that meditation is about non-conceptual knowledge?
An Overview of Current Research
Even though there are historical connections between meditation and philosophy, and it is becoming more and more common to mediate, there are few examples of contemporary philosophical works on meditation. One exception is Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being, which presents an approach that unites traditional Eastern philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and meditation. Meditation is understood, among other things, as a method to expand consciousness to include the dream state, the state of dreamless sleep, and perhaps «life after death». Admittedly, Thompson is sceptical about the latter, but it is a common traditional view that meditation can give rise to insight into previous lives. For instance, traditional meditation manuals such as the Visudhimagga contain instructions about how to attain such knowledge.
Jay Latham attempts to define concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation with the help of contemporary theory of action in a way that is perhaps more in accordance with the current down-to-earth mind-set of philosophy. Here we can see how philosophy can support the practice of meditation: It can give clear definitions of what different forms of meditative activity consist. This is useful when it comes to investigating what kinds of meditation effects are tied to what kinds of meditation. Furthermore, clearly defining what meditation is can be useful when communicating exactly what meditation is, and advocating effective techniques; something that includes the identification and exclusion of techniques or aspects of meditation practice that may lead into a blind alley.
Thomas Metzinger has recently developed a theory of mental autonomy presented in the articles «M-Autonomy» and «The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy». This theory starts from the fact that we seem to have a low degree of control over our own thoughts and intentions. Thought processes are usually influenced by biological and other factors of which we are not aware. This means that the picture of the human being as a rational agent who acts based on ethical ideals isn’t rooted in reality. Meditation is presented as a method of coming to know the processes that underlie our thinking. For example, we gain insight into how in our ordinary lives we are under the sway of all kinds of feelings and distractions. We have little control over the tendency of the mind to jump from one object to another (mind-wandering). Only rarely are we fully present in the moment with a calm mind, so that we can actually act in accordance with the ideals we wish to be acting in accordance with. Meditation facilitates the stabilization of the mind and emotional tranquillity. Therefore, meditation leads to an increase of autonomy and takes part in the realization of the ideal of a rational and self- determining human being. Here we can also point to loving-kindness or metta-meditation. This form of meditation nurtures thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that support thedissolution of the separation of self and other. And the more the limit of self and other dissolves, the less the distractions become that originate in egotism or self-centredness, such as aggression, detecting dangers in the environment, social status, etc. Put differently, meditation and ethical action mutually support each other. Some forms of meditation are inherently a practice of ethics; an access to the animal like, instinctual parts of oneself is opened up and replaced by new, ethically more well informed attitudes.
Access to the Subconscious
In the article «Investigating the Depths of Consciousness» I have argued that mediation not only opens an access to the subconscious, but also leads to altered states of consciousness. Meditation can thus be part of an overarching research project that seeks to create an overview of all possible states of consciousness. If one wants to define consciousness, which one needs to do in a philosophy of mind, then information provided through meditation will play a vital role. It isn’t enough to describe the normal processes of consciousness; these can change radically in altered states. Day-to-day consciousness is, as was previously pointed out, characterised by frequent wanderings of the mind. In altered states it is possible that thinking ceases completely, something that can be accompanied by the senses being «turned off»; phenomenologically one does not have a physical body anymore and at the same time one feels more awake than ever. States like these can have a direct influence on philosophical problems. For example, the experience of jhana – an altered state of consciousness characterised by deep concentration or «one-pointedness» – can create an insight into how the mind can generate out of itself happiness, peace, beauty, fullness and meaning. Such experience and insight can naturally be very liberating, though states like these are, to a certain extent, dependent on conditions such as good health and a calm environment. In an Eastern context, the attainment of Nirvana is supposed to result in happiness independent of conditions, or at least the cessation of suffering (by removing the roots of suffering, egotism, ignorance, greed, and hate). Exactly what this means, and whether it is something that can be realistically attained, can of course be discussed.
Traditionally it hasn’t been common to give direct descriptions of one’s own meditation experiences. The reason for this is, among other things, because meditation experiences are hard to describe and that the attention is drawn towards the one doing the describing. Thus the ego is strengthened and it becomes harder to access the deeper states. However, it is becoming increasingly common within meditation research to describe and explore deep meditative states. In a recent study, a case is presented where a person in a deep meditative state was able to dissolve the sense of a boundary between the self and the world. When it comes to the experience of Nirvana, the Buddhist tradition contains discussions on whether this can be an experience at all; it is not, as one might think, a state characterized by being a unity of subject and object, but rather the absence of both (1). There are parallels here to discourses in Western philosophy about whether the absolute can be grasped through concepts; defining something conceptually in determinate way (a is b, where b is a negation of something) presupposes limitation, and something limited cannot be absolute. However, this is a complex debate that we cannot go into here.
As far as I am aware, no one has claimed to having attained happiness beyond conditions in recent times. Nevertheless, many have gained a reduction of suffering, increased well being, and self-insight with relative ease by following some simple meditation instructions. This is probably the reason why more and more people are drawn to meditation. The long-term benefits of meditation are something that researchers will be able to answer more clearly in the future. Not only can philosophy play an important role within meditation research; meditative experiences can also challenge common philosophical preconceptions. For instance, there are examples of meditative experiences where pleasure and pain cannot be separated (2). Such phenomena or forms of experience where categorial oppositions dissolve are typical of deep meditative states. When such a dissolution of the distinction between pain and pleasure takes place, utilitarian calculations of pleasure are no longer possible. Also worthy of mention in this context is the different views the meditative traditions hold on fundamental issues, such as the existence of the self. This indicates that meditation in itself doesn’t necessarily lead to one and the same insight. Buddha is also well-known for not wanting to answer questions such as whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the soul is identical to the body or not, whether Thathagata (the name the Buddha uses to refer to himself) exists after death or not, and so on. In the sutta Cula-Malunkyovada (3) it is pointed out that answering intellectual questions such as these do not contribute to the cessation of suffering. Therefore, the Buddha doesn’t answer them. This is further explained by an analogy: If someone is shot by an arrow, the victim does not need to know for example whether the arrow was shot by a crossbow or a regular bow. What is essential to know is what causes the suffering and how to liberate oneself from it.
This takes us to the question of whether meditation has an inherently anti-intellectual stance. I think this question cannot be simply answered either way. There are views within both the Western and Eastern traditions that state that thinking cannot beget an understanding of reality as it is in itself. In the West there is the school of negative theology, which goes back to Plato, which claims that though higher forms of knowledge are possible, the Godhead or the absolute cannot be known through concepts. Within Buddhism there are thinkers, such as Nagarjuna, who show that ordinary logical argumentation cannot lead to true insight or wisdom. This is something that can also be viewed through the lens of German idealism, in which such topics were central. In particular, G.W.F. Hegel developed a philosophy in which ordinary, or intellectual thinking, though limited, is nevertheless part of a higher form of knowledge. This higher knowledge can adequately conceive of the truth, which, though it exists beyond oppositions, expresses itself through them. Such a form of understanding is therefore well suited for understanding deeper meditative experiences. This form of understanding also allows for the claim that, although meditation can take us beyond our normal horizon of understanding, the insights gained through lie nevertheless within the reach of thinking.
Insight and Transformation
However, there an important difference between philosophy and the meditative traditions. Whereas philosophy, at least as it is practiced today, can be undertaken as a purely theoretical activity, meditation encourages concrete insight and a transformation of the whole human being. At the same time it can be pointed out that meditation is often self-centred. It can make individual human beings happy and give them insight into the their own mind without necessarily leading to more justice in the world. Making oneself happy in an unjust world can be viewed with suspicion, since there is then less motivation to act in a way that also makes the world a better place for others. It can be countered that a self-centred meditative practice lacks integrity. If we conceive of the aim of meditation as dissolving the opposition between self and world, as experiencing and bringing into consciousness the connection between everything and everyone, meditation will facilitate action that contributes to dissolving differences and inequality. Through reflections like this we can see how a critical investigation can lead to a clarification of what meditation really means both in theory and practice.
Certain meditative traditions emphasise the relationship between human beings and the world. Besides the tantric traditions, a good example of this is anthroposophical meditation founded by Rudolf Steiner. Though it was influenced by Theosophy and thereby also the Eastern traditions, its origins can be traced back to different parts of European culture, such as Christian mysticism, Goethe, German idealism, and Nietzsche. Within anthroposophical meditation the aim is not just to establish a general connection to a spiritual world, but also to attain insight into the nature of things and the origin and development of humanity and the cosmos. The meditative states of consciousness that constitute the foundation of such knowledge (imagination, inspiration, and intuition) are explicitly understood as a further development of higher philosophical thinking (4) and also provide a foundation for anthroposophical social and cultural work as exemplified by the Steiner schools, biodynamic agriculture and anthroposophical medicine. In other words, meditation does not necessarily result in the denying of life.
In summary, although often presented today as a method for increasing health and well-being, meditation has substantial potential in interaction with philosophy. Philosophy and the meditative traditions share a common goal: True knowledge of reality. Though there currently aren’t many studies on the relationship between philosophy and meditation, there are some examples, such as those provided by Thomas Metzinger, Evan Thompson, and Jay Latham, that show how philosophy and meditation can impact each other in a positive way: Philosophy can help with clarifying concepts and provide critical examination and systematisation. Meditation can contribute to a deeper realisation of the ideal of being a free, rational being and thereby include the participation of the whole human being into the investigation of consciousness, the world, and the thought process itself. Not least, meditation offers happiness and a gateway to sublime forms of experience, beauty and meaning in a pure form. Meditation integrates the philosophical theories of truth, goodness, and beauty into a life-long practical project; a practice that can be challenged and deepened with the help of philosophical thinking and critical self-reflection.
(1) Analayo: Satipatthana. The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham: Windhorse 2003, pp. 262–265.
(2) Sparby, Terje: Investigating the Depths of Consciousness. I: Mind and Matter, 3(13), 2015.
(3) Nanamoli, Bhikkhu; Bodhi, Bhikkhu: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications 2009, s. 553-536. (4) Sparby, Terje (red.): Rudolf Steiner som filosof. Oslo: Pax 2013.