Meditation as Natural History

Monday January 7, 2008


Yesterday I stumbled across the following in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, one of those suggestive and stimulating books that have the knack of provoking fresh ideas. Here is an extract that struck me yesterday as I was reading on the train:

In philosophy classes, I often came across the idea that the world is an illusion. I never really knew what that meant, although it sounded deep. But after two decades studying moral psychology, I think I finally get it. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” That is, the world we live in is not really one made of rocks, trees, and physical objects; it is a world of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners. All of these are human creations which, though real in their own way, are not real in the way that rocks and trees are real.

To say that the world is an illusion is not to say that there is nothing going on out there. This is the kind of claim that may succeed in amusing idle philosophers and would-be mystics, but that is pretty darned useless for any other earthly purposes. And earthly purposes are the purposes I care about. The more sensible way in which it can be maintained that the world is an illusion is in the seeing this as the claim that (for good evolutionary reasons, no doubt) we habitually tend to see the world out there in terms of what this or that means for our own interests.

This is why I think that natural history is a wonderful thing. For at root natural history is a practice of paying attention to the world not in terms of what it can do for us, but rather simply seeing the world as it actually is. It is a matter of trying to see the world not as a set of “insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners” for us, but rather in its own terms, according to its own logic.

I have recently been reading Charles Taylor’s doorstop of a book A Secular Age where he explores the roots of secularisation. I won’t say too much about the book here as I’m trying to get a review of the book written, although in brief I found it sometimes insightful but ultimately mistaken in its approach to secularism and the question of human meaning. Taylor talks about how our ancestors, up to around the year 1500, lived in an “enchanted world”, a world of “spirits, demons and moral forces” (26) in which meanings are not in the mind but also in the world. That is, the enchanted world appeared in terms of our own interests, rather than in its own terms.

For me, one of the most enchanting examples of such enchantment can be found by rummaging in medieval bestiaries. I love to read that the saliva of cuckoos generates grasshoppers, that hedgehogs collect grapes on their spines and take them back to feed their young, or that weasels conceive through the ear as the Virgin Mary is supposed to have conceived through the ear. These are wonderful stories, and I cherish them. But they are wrong. Weasel ears are not reproductive organs. Nor were the ears of virgins (or young women, at least) called Mary in the Middle East two thousand years ago.

Knowing that these stories are wrong does not diminish the wonder of them as stories, but it changes the character of this wonder. And if these wonders seem somewhat diminished by their relegation to the status of stories, then you only have to have the patience to sit in a field and look at weasels, and in time you will get to know them and understand what extraordinary little critters they are, not just in terms of our projected stories, but in terms of what they actually do get up to.

In bestiaries, that is, you get a lot of enchantment, but you get precious little natural history. Instead you have an example of the human tendency to project stories of insults, opportunities, saints, sinners etc. into the world beyond. It seems to me that much religious thinking, and much of Taylor’s “enchanted world” is made up of precisely this kind of projection of human stories onto the world beyond, from the Biblical account of the rainbow as a God’s promise not to all but annihilate humankind by means of flooding again, to the ancient Greek tales of Zeus and his cronies. But natural history is wonderful, I think, because in the sustained attention that lies at the heart of the discoveries of field biologists and their like, it breaks down precisely this tendency to project stories upon the natural world merely on the basis of our own sense of what is meaningful and important, merely on the basis of what we think “ought” to be true about the world. Instead it demands that we seek out stories that, whatever their implications for our self-view, correspond more and more closely to the logic of the world. In doing so, it calls into question our limited sense of the world. For all of the charm of the bestiaries, the natural world is wider, more astonishing and richer than those medieval writers imagined.

To return to Haidt’s book, however. Haidt claims that we live in a world of illusion. We are very good at perceiving the world in terms of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints and sinners. But these, he points out, “though real in their own way, are not real in the way that rocks and trees are real.” And here, I think, the connection with meditation can be made. When you sit down to meditate, you are invited to pay attention what is going on behind these habitual stories. When you sit in meditation you think “I am angry” and, to be sure, there is a kind of reality to this anger. But look at it more closely. What is it made up of? Then, if you have the patience of a natural historian, you might find that this anger is an unease in the gut, a jitteriness, a flickering of thoughts. Then you might notice that feeling of vulnerability, that desire to be freed from pain, to be appreciated. Then you might notice how these things are accompanied by other things that are not a part of the anger. A sense of ease somewhere in the body, even a ripple of simple contentment. Then you might notice that a bird is singing outside, or that the traffic continues to pass, or that next door a radio is murmuring. Then you might notice that the sun is touching your face. All of this happening together. The old story cannot do all this justice.

Meditation, I like to think, is a kind of natural history, cutting through the heat and the fire of our interests to see the deeper patternings of the world of which we, natural beings that we are, are a part.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
#1 · Mathias

7 January 2008

I wouldn’t limit the world of illussion to only insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints and sinners. I would also include rocks and trees, in the way that a rock is not a rock and a tree is not really a tree, but only an image or a concept of something percieved, and therefore it only exists in our minds.
What is percieved cannot be described, because when we do, we create that illusion in our mind. It can only be directly experienced.
At least I believe this is what was intended when the old Masters talked about the world being an illussion. Not saying that every philosopher meant it like that…

#2 · Will

7 January 2008

True. This is a point made – out of the Buddhist context – in The Literary Mind by Mark Turner, where he writes that chairs and persons and such-like are not objects for physics but only for human stories. So where do we stop? The Abhidharmists and the atomists like Democritus claimed that there was a fundamental level where things were really real. But we haven’t got there yet in the physical sciences, and some (for example Jonathan Schaffer in the journal Nous back in 2003) have argued that we may not be able to reach this fundamental level of really real things. This may leave us with something like Nagarjuna’s groundlessness.

At the same time, there are pragmatically speaking better and worse descriptions of things, even without such an anchor in the really real.

All the best,

#3 · Dan

19 January 2008

I hust wanted to say I really appreciate your insights here, and look forward to reading your review of Taylor’s book. When and where will it appear?

#4 · Paul

19 January 2008

I’ve come back to this post a few times because it’s so intriguing. What you present here seems a good way of explaining no-self and the nature of delusion. Natural history just is. It’s what I think of as cosmic truth. What we project onto it has nothing to do with reality. Thanks for the provocative ideas.

#5 · Dave

20 January 2008

Thanks for expressing so well something I’ve often thought about natural history. I envy your students.

#6 · Will

21 January 2008

Thanks for the comments, folks. The Taylor review is now online. It can be accessed through the link here

Comments are turned off for this article.