Meditation doesn’t exist
To meditation! As Matthias Steingass is want to point out, the term meditation does not tell us much. Buddhism does not teach a single generic all-encompassing meditation, but instead, multiple forms of meditative and contemplative techniques that are almost always intended to be followed for a significant amount of time. The term practice is very common amongst Buddhists to describe what they do and most of us speak of my practice as we speak of Buddhism as if it were a single entity. It is perhaps more useful, however, to consider the wide array of ‘practices’ as techniques that are designed with specific intentional purposes. In fact, one of the problems that arises with these techniques is a tendency towards vagueness in understanding what they are actually for, how they are to be utilised, the duration required for them to have any effect, and the potential difficulties and stages that can emerge in pursuing them. When meditation is taken as a label for a catch-all thingy followed by spiritual people indefinitely, meditation often loses its intended purpose and therefore potential. This is increased through vague goals which are usually indefinitely postponed, such as enlightenment. Secondly, teachers often don’t really know what they are doing as teachers and as a consequence, neither do students. That is say, returning to Gidden, there is often an insignificant amount of self-reflection regarding tradition on both parts and tradition is expected to produce what it has always seemingly historically produced: ‘It worked before, so it should work again, just keep as close to tradition as possible and it should all work out, right?’ But, oh my, how often it doesn’t. A second issue is a lack of teacher training and know how, but that is an issue for another post, and by the way, when I say teacher training, I am not referring to the handing on of the torch through transmission, which has not always proved a reliable means for testing the character of the new head honcho, but instead professional development and the learning and refinement of actual teaching skills.
If we can consider meditation as really an umbrella term for an immense number of meditative techniques, then we might start to shift our conception of meditation, from a vague spiritual thingy to something more akin to physical and mental exercise, with each having a different impact on different aspects of our mind, body, emotions, daily life and so on. I do not want to rob meditation of its spiritual possibilities, but rather to understand that from Buddhism, if we take what is shared by the various traditions, we find technique after technique, frequently defined in minute detail in a manner that is similar to an instructions manual. That is to say, that not always, but often, meditation is not a switch off from reality or escape into the happy zone, but rather a whole lot of method for acting on our human condition, or for developing new skills or capacity. Meditation then is most commonly a form of training. Like all good quality training though, method is only method and it must always be adapted in order to fit best different body types, motivation level, commitment, available time, goals, etc. The best training also has a decent trainer able to understand an individual’s characteristics and guide appropriately.
I would argue that there is genuinely a great mismatch in Buddhism between the sort of quality input that an individual would require in carrying forward a method in a meaningful and significant manner and the level of teaching and expertise on offer. Tibetan Buddhists have a lot to say about this, but I would say the situation there is just as problematic, if not worse, compounded by the obsession with guru yoga and the dependence on an authority figure in the form of a personal teacher. Vajrayana Buddhism is most at risk in this regard as modern commentators like David Chapman are all too aware.
Taking out and putting back in again
So what can we do as individuals to aid our post-traditional situation with regards to meditation? How can long-term Buddhists with an eye to modernity approach meditation with a greater degree of reflection towards the practices themselves? I employ quite a simple approach to this. I do so after years of being involved with primarily Tibetan Buddhism. I remove a practice, technique, teaching, core principle or philosophical stand point from Buddhism and ask myself a few simple questions, among which are the following:
How is this (practice, technique, belief) without Buddhism? What is left minus the Buddhism?
How is it an expression of a shared factor of humanity? What happens if I remove the claims to super powers and omniscience, etc?
Does it warrant attention and care if I no longer define it as special?
What is the intention behind this? Is this an appropriate means for actualising this intent in this day and age and in my circumstances?
The experiences that arise from long-term practice of a technique can also be addressed with the same or similar questions. After doing this for quite a few years, I realised that I can also put back what has remained after months or years of experimentation, and gain further nuances and a more fuller picture of what impact the practice or idea can potentially have on my personal experience and the changes in behaviour that arise due to consistent practice and effort.
This is a simple attempt at gaining greater self-reflection and awareness of the techniques instead of leaving tradition to determine what the thing is, what results it should produce and how I should go about fitting myself into that inherited picture. As any fan of critical thinking knows, questions are key at opening doors to further understanding and with meditation practice ultimately being an exceptionally intimate process, we have to devise our own questions and be very sincere in our pursuit of answers, which may not always arise as we might expect.
For those who have been around Buddhism for significant time, exotic names such as Shunyata, Dzogchen, Zazen and so on are categories that could perhaps be set aside for clarity’s purpose too. What is left apart from the name? Now, for those in a tradition, this can be temporary, but it is useful to do so for reasons of association. The exotic layer often adds a value that detracts from the simple human reality of engaging with an idea, belief, value or practice and its processes. Some of the meditative techniques from Buddhism could be broadly considered as really being concerned with some of the following;
Reflection, Mental programming, Creative visualisation, Energetic gymnastics, Chanting & prayer, Self-hypnosis, Developing focus, Pacification, Suppression, Desensitising, Resensitising, Contemplation, Self-reflection, Questioning, Relaxing very deeply, Releasing, Intensifying, Positive thought manipulation.
The many varied Buddhist traditions in their different countries have developed a wide variety of often conflicting ideas regarding meditation, but instead of viewing them as competitors for the best techniques, it would more helpful to reflect on what the techniques actually do to you if you engage with them for a decent amount of time and how they are fellow humans’ attempts to develop a process for enacting change. Because it is a human activity, it may be developed further, simplified, changed, updated, transformed or left behind.
Meditation is not just something you do either. If a techniques comes from a specific tradition, it carries with it a world view and a conceptual framework that defines the person, mind, thought, emotions, feelings, goals, purpose and obstacles. Even the occasional rhetorical command from Zen to ‘just sit’ still carries with it layers of assumptions about what a person is, what they are capable of doing and what sitting and doing and not doing are. The trick though in reviewing meditation practices is to take lightly traditional rhetoric and its tendency to hyperbole. Within descriptions and transmission there is often the loaded ideological symbology of hundreds, if not thousands of years that colours perception rendering the experience contaminated and already loaded with assumptions that very often get in the way of the experience itself and the simplicity of a human activity taking place in a human body and mind in this time, our time. When we swallow the rhetoric, we swallow a preconditioned set of assumptions about how the meditative experience is supposed to be. This can lead to mimicry, distortion and for many, discomfort and frustration.
The next step then is to attempt to get at the ideological trappings created by culture and the rigidities and self-serving agendas of institutions and see what’s left at a human level. Often simplification is the most reliable method for bridging the gap between idealised practice over there and our personal and direct human experience over here.
Polishing the surface, taking the exotic veneer off, and peering in
We should not underestimate the impact the exotic has on our conceptual reception of Buddhism and its techniques. I believe that an intelligent goal in working with Buddhist practices is to humanise and deconsecrate them, that is to say, remove the exotic and insist they be the work and domain of humans. I cannot state enough how important I consider it to be that we grow up, let go of the need for a father/mummy figure and take ownership of our own process, our own relationship with our life’s path and whatever part of that we invest with Buddhist ideas, values and practices.
A post-traditional approach is very much about that. Some folks figure that out all by themselves of course, others never get there. Many who grow up at some point understand that their relationship with Buddhism was a fad, a juvenile indulgence in alternatives to a materialistic, work based reality. It is no surprise that escapism is so bound up with the religious and the spiritual and antimodernism, and that Buddhism is right there in the mix. This makes me think that modernity is also a responsibility. Perhaps the retreat into religious certainty is often an attempt to push back against the uncertainty that modernity brings about. The destabilising effect it produces seems to me at least at heart a perfect ally for the notions of impermanence and the lack of a solid anything. Perhaps modern day Buddhists would do well to be braver and embrace the uncertainty of our modern world, both experientially and ideologically?