Friday, November 6, 2020

Meditation For Sale

I've been party to some conversation lately about "meditation." If you are wondering those are sort of hate quotes, not because I hate meditation but to suggest that the meaning of the term is worth a chortle before we get all solemn and serious. Never pious. Piety is never a virtue but that is another matter. Meditation is both more and less than what we usually mean by the word . That's my point of departure here. What you discover looking out at the world that already might be interested in the topic is rife with irony, as we'll see.
But to keep it plain: Quietism is the order of the day. Chill. Less stress. Less anxiety. One of the big website businesses is, after all, called Calm. My problem with this is that it is only the most elementary requisite to what meditation _needs_ to become if it is to be more than a soporific stupor. Early Buddhism has provided the bulk of inspiration for these modern kinds of meditation sold to first in the yoga world and now beyond to, you know, normal people. "Mindfulness" is the big sell, of course, and you have to go only a few further steps to get to something like the loving-kindness crowd where being a good person is also the purported outcome of learning meditations. Okay, be nice and get quiet inside is great. I'm immediately bored by this. But that isn't because I couldn't be nicer or dislike calm. But you mean
that's it? A few bits of context. What's being sold as "Vipassana" however isn't vipassana (insight), it is almost only its traditional complement, samatha, (chill, serenity) and the basics for this sell are lifted almost verbatim from the Pali canon traditions of Theravada Buddhism. The mindfulness sell also is sure to leave out two more features besides any serious effort at analysis (vipassana): the deep disdain for _all_ worldliness and the goal that claims ultimate relief from the human condition itself aka buddhahood. Those Pali canon inspirations in the modern meditation sale are in it for the chill bit, a kind of first level therapeutics for dealing with a life that will continue to spin and be spun out by a relentless world of desires (samsara). That will keep you meditating the same way you keep riding your exercise bike. Do it regularly and you will get the result: more chill, less stress. Who could object? But that's it? They aren't keen either on too much ardor (tapas) much less the more rigorous ascetical values that would require disaffection coupled to dissociations from everyday concerns. Those are rooted values in early Buddhism that prompts the purpose of meditation itself. But let's not labor the details. And please, don't got right away to "higher consciousness" or "deeper states": snake oil is everywhere for sale, always has been. All of this easy to understand because most people just want a bit less stress and anxiety just to carry on with what they are already doing. Real change in personal development is not in the works because what meditation _could_ be has been reduced to quietism without much further introspection. We let stuff "come up" (because it will) but we rarely learn more about dealing with it. That would require words, concepts, analysis, and further implementations. We are being told to close our eyes but not to look within. We are not taught much of anything about how to use our powers of _critical_ introspection and imagination to illumine our shadows and go deeper into the oceans of thought and feeling. Those processes imply mind, ego, and awareness and god forbid you take those things seriously as assets to be cultivated and made further investments. We are being told how to divest rather than invest in ourselves. We're told that calming down, feeling less stress or anxiety is the goal of the investment. It's barely the beginning. To wit, there is no more "vipassana" that would break into the issues that we must address---apparently, once you are calm there is no need to do the kind of work that invites you to receive more information about yourself, the stuff that is deeply buried and is not all pleasant. You meditate to relieve strife not to realize it's potencies. There is not the slightest suggestion that the potencies of strife, like deep inner rage or desire or feelings that disturb, are potential assets and could invite further investments.
Becoming more receptive to more of what's going on inside does indeed require the power of calm. You've surmised at this point that my claim is that this is only the very beginning of the work. Let's leave aside (can I say dismiss, please?) the idea that we are waking up our "inner divinity" or illumination or liberation or any such religious assertion about what are called generally attainments. Just fergitaboutthat "spiritual" (it's really religious) bit and focus for a moment on the idea that calm is actually the prerequisite for inner study, serious introspection, and further consideration of ourselves as individuals, as human beings that have been made by forces greater than ourselves---like society, history, DNA, you name it, but all the stuff you don't actually choose. This means that analysis or introspection must begin _from_ some semblance of calm and proceeds _not_ first to personal choice, free will, or some claim about empowerment but to a critical awareness of what makes us that we do not decide or choose. This is what most traditions call karma, and I hope that is obvious enough to keep this argument moving forward. We calm to begin to deal with ourselves not as we choose but as we have been created. Just to stick with the helpful teminology of the Buddhists, the word "vipassana" is etymologically something like rendered 'discrete seeing'. (Oh and if you're not aware vipassana is Pali and vipashana is Sanskrit and that sorta' does matter (a lot) when we discuss the actual historical sources.) We must first see with perspicacity how karma---history, culture, language, family, larger systemics and structures, etc.---makes us and then move on to what is inside us as individuals that we must contend with as our _own_ experience. What lies within that experience is more than we remember just like it is more than we choose. But that we can 'go there' through the powers of meditation is what this analytical side of the methods and practices assert. This means that meditation is actually aiming towards deep introspection, critical analysis, the uncovering and unburying of the experiences and forces that make up a greater totality of our actual lives. Let me put this in a familiar metaphor. As old as the Veda is the idea that three-fourths of creation remains unseen, only one-fourth ever revealed (cf., RV 10.90). Now put this in very simple human experiential terms. We identify principally with waking consciousness and take reality to be directed from that kind of experience. But we dream and have deep sleep and then there is "the fourth", which if it is not some religious claim of liberation might well be our collective unconscious. Thus, we are waking, dreaming, dreamless, and collective-unconscious beings and only one-fourth is really given its due. We have few skills in investigation the other three-fourths and especially what is literally called the fourth---turya/turiya is what Vedantins call it but they mean it to be "beyond" and so some kind of ultimate relief. The collective unconscious offers no such reprieve from the mundane. It is the storehouse of experience that is built into each of us that informs and authorizes the other kinds of consciousness experience. Rajanaka teaching could not only care less about claims to liberation in (as) this fourth state but invites one to consider that life isn't for achieving exemptions but rather further and deeper involvements with ourselves.
Meditation is only _one_ way to break into the four kinds of human experience (waking, dreaming, dreamless, collective unconscious) and there are lots of techniques and strategies of practice. Those we can discuss at length elsewhere. My point here is to say that the purpose of all such breaking (into, through, as, with, etc.) is to _find out more_, to explore, experiment, and delve into realms that turn into more effective connections that broaden and deepen our love of life. Yoga means engagement and the idea at its heart is that we have to learn to engage if we want to engage more, if we want to live more fully, more connected to more features and selves we possess and can create. My personally favored forms of meditation have little to do with quietism and eyes shut. Mine happen to be darshan, pilgrimage, and then writing, reading poetry, mythology, studying art and literature of all sorts, philosophy and thinking. Yours likely happens with yoga mats too but me, not so much. "Meditation" does indeed mean to look inside, but it is to see and feel and think _more_, not less. It means to open up and connect to more of you so that you can figure out how to live with yourself (selves). But who wants to do the work? Business knows this and so sells you calm. Religion knows this and so sells you "states" or attainments or, worse, "liberation." Trying to sell the harder part will never be less hard because there's no requirement for we humans to become more human. The ardor it takes and whatever payoff it will relieve some anxiety and stress but it will also cause a stir, it will cause more churning, more twists and turns, more days in the maze of feelings and thoughts. Wasn't that supposed to, you know, stop? Actually, no. Connection means the tandava, the dance inside, is even a wilder ride. And who wants that? I do.