A View on Meditation: de-essentialising

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(Hilma af Klimt, The Swan, 1915)

Intro

The intention of this series is to strip away a good deal of the religious and spiritual packaging surrounding meditation to dig around for that imperfect human underneath. If you are one of these imperfect humans, you may find this task useful too. To this end, it is necessary to start off by de-essentializing meditation, and additionally recognise that human minds and human bodies are always the ones enacting meditation techniques. What’s more, it can be helpful to be wary of claims by traditions that they have the highest, most powerful, purest, original, and most authentic, bestest ever technique…ever. It is perhaps worth asking yourself ‘Why the hell do they make such claims?’ if you follow a tradition that says as much, as the answers can be rather enlightening.

My meditation is all meditation

So what is meditation? Ask anyone who practices it and they will likely reply with confidence that what they do IS meditation. At most you might get a Buddhist, Hindu or New Age reading of the types of meditation practised by those following such pathways. Sometimes the obvious is not as obvious as it might seem which is why it is worth  remembering that there really are masses and masses of meditation techniques out there with myriad schools of thought providing wide-ranging reasoning behind them. Is it possible therefore to find an essential practise underlying all of them? In one word: no! Not at all; there is no essential, universal, underlying, meditation practice. This means that not all meditation techniques or the reasoning behind them are equal and we may need to make some value judgements folks. The only sameness to be found is the physical one; meditation practices take place within human bodies, and interact effectively, or ineffectively, with our shared human world; the social and physical reality we live in. Meditation techniques viewed from this perspective are always relational practices as nothing is truly taking place in isolation. No technique is utterly pure or devoid of the human animal performing it. This is a perspective that will be painfully obvious for some of you, a taboo for others, and never seriously appreciated by too many others still.

Looking for a true essence to meditation usually means looking for how all the other meditation practices are actually like your own. If the observer is truly special, they will no doubt assume all other techniques to be inferior versions of their own pet practice: something I have witnessed a great deal of over the years. The creeping presence of Mindfulness© means that this term often gets used as a placeholder for meditation, but the problem still remains. To claim all meditation practices are the same is to bend reality to fit your beliefs. As soon as you begin to examine carefully what is occurring under the title of meditation, difference is to be found, everywhere; from posture to the breath, from the gaze to the hand position, to the length of time spent sitting, to the place in which the sitting occurs, from the intention used to direct practice, to the framework within which the person makes sense of what they are doing and experiencing as a result. Objectives differ, values differ, and evaluation is markedly different; the same experience can signal progress within one system or the loss of progress within another. The way the individual’s subjective experience within ongoing practice is valued by the teacher or the group and how meaning is assigned to it all varies widely too and possibly the greatest difference of all and the one that signals a functional or dysfunctional relationship for those with loftier goals. Seeing sameness across all these differences is unhelpful.

Discarding a meditational essence does not mean fragmentation into infinite possibilities. We humans are rather limited creatures after all and can only do so much. Therefore, we are dealing with limited phenomena and from the limitations we can identify different categories of practice, and do our best to use straightforward means for contextualising them into a human framework by identifying relationship types. The approach I would like to explore in examining the types of relational experiences developed through meditative practices is obviously a humanist and secular one.

The secular Buddhists have taken a specific direction in this regard focussing primarily on the earlier Buddhist teachings and practices. I believe these practices to be of real value but I also consider them to be less effective in their Buddhist aims for a modern Western environment. This may be just a case of personal preference. That said, for advanced practitioners and those who live family lives, there are a number of inherent problems with the earlier social contexts in which practices were developed, the concepts used to define path and its result, leading to unaddressed assumptions on the part of those who take these practices seriously today. The later developments in Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a response to the limitations of the earlier schools of thought. The Tibetans have said as much and this has led to political tension in the past with most schools of Buddhism these days being happy to maintain the feel-good idea that all schools of Buddhism are equal, have the same goal and one, therefore, is as good as any other. This seems to be part of the well-meaning desire to avoid the politics and get along but calling for sameness when sameness is not there seems rather naive and to contribute to unthinking generalisations.

Where to begin in this orgy of techniques?

Complexity is part of the game when coming at the plethora of Buddhist practices. We need to simplify and set parameters for thinking critically. Let’s start by viewing meditation as a category noun that refers to a wide range of techniques, practices, disciplines and methods, all of which might be appropriate to specific contexts or conditions, and have been forged in time by our fellow human beings in response to our wonderfully perplexing human condition. We can be generous and use the old skilful means meme from Buddhism to define each as such: a method for relating to a specific human condition, question, or need. Some are certainly more effective than others and some practices may be truly outdated and worth discarding.

Practices can be situated within a specific tradition and therefore be dependent on the ideology that gave birth to them and that continues to be administered by a lineage and its teachers. In this way, the techniques and practices are encoded within a worldview, a set of values, and a map of human potential, ease and suffering: this can be very helpful to folks looking for a solid basis from which to explore Buddhism. No problem with that. This can, however, render practices inaccessible for those who are put off by traditional forms of culturally enriched Buddhism. Many of the same techniques can be unlocked from a given tradition and explored apart from the casing within which they are framed. This could be done whilst acknowledging their historical creation and context so as to not lose sight of features that may be important. If you identify as Buddhist, having a sense of appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of traditions would be noble too, though it is additionally wise to be cautious about applying excessive reverence to human practice, for this may block a critical view.

Interjection: Buddhist traditions are like all religions in that the notion of lineage and history are of immense importance for claims of legitimacy. Claiming a line back to the founder of Buddhism brings legitimacy. Claiming uncommon sources brings kudos. The hierarchical nature of many Buddhist traditions means that the lowly follower may feel a certain sense of taboo when experimenting with techniques, teachings and principles. In the first Tibetan groups I practised with, there were the twin burdens of purity and authenticity: Thou must not stray from the impeccable teachings of one’s teacher or thou shall be driven by ego, accumulate negative karma and be indulging one’s sense of hubris, only an authentic lineage teacher can guide you away from your deeply troubled and dangerous ego! I have to ask though, are we all so flawed that unless strictly guided by a traditionally trained wise one we will descend into a power grab and seek to become a money and pussy or cock grabbing guru like, say, Osel Tendzin or a Richard Baker or a Sogyal or a Michael Roach or a…ok, I admit, there are many who have fallen from grace but they are perhaps perfect examples of what not to do. There are also good folk who are doing innovative, experimental work in thinking about and working with Buddhism whilst shunning any interest in becoming gurus, starting a harem or cashing in. For long-term practitioners, experimentation in approaching Buddhism with a clear intention is a fruitful path to follow and not at all incompatible with respect for others and what they hold sacred.

Why do so then? Why uncouple practices from their roots? Why risk it? Won’t the techniques lose their power? Aren’t they dangerous? Isn’t this some form of cultural appropriation? In some cases, the answer may be yes to each of these questions. To assume such an act is always such represents an impoverished view of our fellow humans. I have stated before that I believe long-term practitioners ought to be open to viewing their practices and beliefs critically and creatively. If we are clear with our intentions and act in good faith, then experimentation and thinking materials afresh should be productive of insight rather than a descent into arrogance or superficiality. A post-traditional approach is not concerned with maintaining the norms of traditions but as I carry it forward there is no desire to crap on traditional Buddhism either. There is space for traditional and non-traditional approaches and changes in the history of a religion. Clarity of intention can support mutual understanding and keep discussion productive even when unsettling.

Here I am considering the knowledge we have of meditation practices to be part of the great feast of knowledge of all humans, and therefore open to exploration, experimentation and critique by anyone willing to make the effort to learn and own their actions. As we have seen on this blog, one major problem with enclosed ideological spaces is that they necessarily lead to the development of an internal language which becomes self-referential and uncomfortable with criticism. We see this playing out in identity politics all the time. Internal narratives additionally apply associations and hidden meaning to forms of practice: a sort of internal code for managing hierarchies and identities that too often ends up obfuscating what is straight forward. An enclosed ideational space is almost never recognised or acknowledged to be such with a resultant tendency for the local and enclosed to be universalised, and worse, painted as complete and perfect. This is a great time tested political strategy employed by a many a religious hierarchy to cement orthodoxy. Open dialogue, dissent and debate are a wonderful antidote to unthinking reproduction of the status quo and will always be uncomfortable for those resisting change.

In the next post, we run with the de-essentialised meditation label, rummage through the myriad materials of Buddhism, and cobble together categories for thinking meditation afresh. Fingers crossed fellow humans, something of value may emerge!

2 comments

  1. Interesting post Matthew! I’m busy with a few projects but will definitely be re-reading this when I make the time.

    Thanks for another fun/engaging read 🙂

    Hope you don’t mind me posting my notes. I wrote them for myself to refer back to later but thought you or another reader might find them interesting:

    “What’s more, it can be helpful to be wary of claims by traditions that they have the highest, most powerful, purest, original, and most authentic, bestest ever technique…ever. It is perhaps worth asking yourself ‘Why the hell do they make such claims?’ if you follow a tradition that says as much, as the answers can be rather enlightening.”

    Yes – it doesn’t take many mental-watts to recognise this, and yet smart people slip up on that ideological banana peel all the time. I wonder if you’d agree with Ken McLeod, who highlighted, that the rhetoric of ‘unsurpassably better than all you mucks’, can form part of the method. If one uses the statements of ‘this is the good stuff’ as part of the architecture of your practice, whilst recognising the silliness of those statements, it could be a helpful tool. That requires a degree of sincerity coupled with a sense of humour, which can either empower a performative practice, or it could sap the life out of it. Depends, right?

    It takes a not-insignificant degree of maturity to be able to fully engage with a system of practice without becoming subjectified by the phonotopolgy of that sphere – the ‘vocal dome within which the coexistent listen to one another…give order to one another….inspire one another’ (Sloterdijk)

    “That said, for advanced practitioners and those who live family lives, there are a number of inherent problems with the earlier social contexts in which practices were developed, the concepts used to define path and its result, leading to unaddressed assumptions on the part of those who take these practices seriously today.”

    Yes – the frames of reference so often go unnoticed and unquestioned as a very important part of the relational-process of ‘practice’. Meanwhile these frames are by no means inert, but form significant asymmetries of power between various intentions and conceptions of how to live in the world.

    “Many of the same techniques can be unlocked from a given tradition and explored apart from the casing within which they are framed.”

    This is an interesting claim. I wonder to what degree those techniques remain the same when ‘unlocked from tradition’. Good example is Western Mindfulness, which in a context dependent sense is completely different to techniques nearly identical in contextual isolation.

    “one major problem with enclosed ideological spaces is that they necessarily lead to the development of an internal language which becomes self-referential and uncomfortable with criticism.”

    Yeah the immunological function of cultural spaces is such an interesting idea, at least it is to me. As the cohesive tensions of a cultural space increase, the less flexible it becomes…then you end up with a kind of hyper-immunity where even benevolent/collaborative actors are pathologised, and eventually the space becomes auto-immune.

    Like

    1. Hi Jack,
      Thanks. Post your notes away fella.

      I think ken’s view may be perfectly valid in the context of traditional Buddhism but not particularly useful outside in a post-traditional landscape. I wonder if emphasising the need for faith that time tested techniques and practices do happen to produce change would suffice in most cases with a general cultural shift marked by greater honesty and an appreciation for context that could replace the bait and switch tactics. As I suggest, a switch to categories of appropriacy seems perfectly adequate if you’re teaching/guiding semi-intelligent beings.

      I don’t think Tibetan Buddhism looses anything by dropping the charade that it has the best ever stuff ever. It does have a wonderful treasure-trove of materials and practices. They’re good enough without the silly boastful rhetoric.

      This ‘phonotopolgy’ business sounds like the old Buddhist sufficiency issue raising its head again.

      The next post might respond somewhat to your thoughts on removing techniques from tradition. The new episode of the podcast with Hokai Sobol as guest touches on what practice is and how we might frame it too. It’ll be up (hopefully) by Friday next, although most of that content is is in the second part, which will be up some time after. Obviously, in removing techniques from a traditional, and therefore ideological framework, you are placing them in another new framework, which will determine to some degree how the thing is understood and so on.

      I guess the issue is to what degree a person believes that we are fully and forever isolated in ideology and therefore just swapping filters and systems of interpretation or if there is the real possibility for universal (for us humans as a species) qualities, experiences and perceptions to be found that bridge across ideological filtration.

      I personally assume that this is the case although I’m all too aware that Mr Pepper will argue against such a view until he’s blue in the face. We share so much across cultures and time and it is there where practice most often finds its home. Complexity doesn’t necessarily equal fragmentation into infinite forms; rather, the togetherness that we share as a species is darn messy and it is often in the simple things that we find recognition.

      Matthew

      Like

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