Meditation as Unphenomenology

Thursday February 7, 2008

Korean Map

When I started meditating around a decade and a half ago, I probably had a number of hopelessly romantic views about what meditation actually entailed; and I wonder now if the fact that I found meditation so damned hard for the first couple of years was because of these romantic views. For quite a long while as I meditated, I think that I was simply looking for something that was not there.

An example of this is the notion I had of meditation as a means of mapping the undiscovered hidden territories of the mind: I used to picture the mind as an unknown country that was waiting to be explored. But as I continued with the practice of meditation, this imagined territory seemed a curiously ephemeral thing. And this, in turn, led to a certain amount of frustration. The harder I tried to look for this unmapped country, the more it seemed to slip away from me.

Now I think that metaphors of unmapped territory and the like are infelicitous when it comes to meditation. The mind does not seem to be amenable to such cartographic enterprises. And this is why in the Western traditions of philosophy and psychology traditions of introspection have been strangely ineffective. Whether it is Husserl’s phenomenology or Wundt’s systematic attempt to catalogue the basic elements of experience, it seems that introspective methods for all their staggering sophistication have involved an awful lot of labour but given rise to pretty scanty results. As Michel Serres asks somewhere of phenomenology, “Why so much technology for such little yield?”

The more I think about meditation, the more I think that it is not an introspective or phenomenological method. Or not, at least, in the way that Husserl and Wundt would have understood such methods. Meditation is not cartography, nor is it a cataloguing of the territory of the mind, despite the superficial similarity between Wundt’s aspirations and those of the Abhidhamma. Instead, I prefer these days to think about meditation as a kind of unphenomenology.

Unphenomenology? What on earth do I mean by this? What I mean is that what meditation seems to do is not so much reveal to us startling new facts about our conscious experience, but rather it breaks down the habitual tendency to interpret our experience in terms of particular stories: the story of the self who is hero or victim, for example; or the story that I am this or that kind of being. When the prasangika philosophers talk about the way that phenomena, far from becoming more clear and distinct, actually dissolve under analysis, or when Hakuin talks about great doubt, I can’t help thinking that they are being more unphenomenological than they are being phenomenological.

Or, otherwise put, meditation is not so much a matter of charting the territory as it is of recognising that the maps we use day to day are, for all their appeal, hopelessly inappropriate representations of the fluid, ever-shifting processes of body and mind. We need new metaphors.

Image of 15th Century Korean Map: Wikimedia Commons

# · Mathias

Very well said!

# · Martin

Yep, one good fMRI study will tell you more about the cartography of mindspace than a lifetime of meditation. The notion of that you are on the road to great revelations is as misplaced, I think, as the belief among certain members of the 1960s counterculture that psychedelics could do the same thing. I meditate to reduce stress and feel calm. However, I am years away from reaching a point of unphenomenology, like you. I still need a lot of practice.

Thanks for the great post.

# · Johan

What’s the use of more metaphors? Why not enjoy the real thing? :)

# · Alistair Appleton

Entirely by serendipity I stumbled across your blog after having very similar thoughts, walking to the Tube this morning.

I’ve been a serious meditator for the last 8 years, sitting twice a day every day. But just recently, since January, I’ve deliberately stopped meditating. Not without a lot of psychic resistance I might add. I have a great deal of vested interest in my practice and lots of my personality shards sewn into it – but stopping was much more enlightening than much of my recent sits.

Unconsciously, my wily habits of Self, old habits mostly, had hijacked the very thing I took up to dismantle them. The very tool I’d picked up to be fresh, had become subtly stale.

That idea of the metaphor struck me very strongly. I was thinking about the word ‘refuge’. Dharma practitioners, particularly in the Thai Monastic tradition I have studied in, use it a great deal. And, of course, when you start out in meditation, the idea of having a sanctuary, a safe, dry headland in the stormy seas of stress is crucial. But what is implicit in that metaphor? The refuge can easily become the bastion, the strong room against the world. The jealously guarded vault of peace.

Recent shifts in my practice have led me to see that there is nothing to take refuge from; no inimical ‘outside world’ to shelter from; nothing to retreat from. That whole hidden metaphor of the battle is powerful and unskillful. Stopping meditating for a few weeks is like stopping the magic spell that you believe has been protecting you for years only to discover that there is nothing to be protected from and what the spell has been pointing to all this time is that there is nothing to fear.

It feels like the sweet honeycomb of dharma somehow got trapped in a brittle, calciferous lattice of old habits. My gentle task is to carry it out into the air again.

# · David

I found your blog while surfing through some others I read and comment on regularly , very nice, very thoughtful.

I like your word “unphenomenological” … kind of “not-something-linear”

I was at a long dharma study with the Dalai Lama last fall in New York, and he went carefully through Nagarjuna’s commentary of the diamond sutra, and it explained all phenomena this way, not just meditation.

No phenomena have an absolute identity, everything is ultimately inter-related with everything else in the universe at all times. I think mediation is a modality for us to stop the story in our heads and to glimpse, the non-logical, non-being of all things.

I will stop by again and add a link to you on my blog.

one love.

# · Will

Thanks for the further comments. Why not drop the metaphors altogether? In some ways, I think that meditation could be seen as a process of metaphor dropping. But outside of meditation, it can be useful to talk about stuff, so new metaphors can be handy.
Interesting thoughts about stopping meditation for a period, Alastair. It can, I think, be salutary. And you are right, David, about the Prasangika approach to all phenomena being that of a much more thoroughgoing non-foundationalism than the one I propose here.
Best wishes,

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

It’s been a while since I dropped in but you blog is looking good, and your posts are as stimulating and enjoyable as ever. I’m also revisioning my meditation practice at the moment towards something like what you are talking about, also after a decade and a half of sitting (the 15 year itch?)

I agree what the meditation process is more like a deconstruction process, an unmapping. At present I am trying to focus on the question: what is it that arises in dependence on causes? The answer is (IMO) dhammas, which are mental. “Things” may well arise in dependence on causes, but the Buddha never seems much interested in that – it is the process of cittas arising in dependence on contact, and the resulting proliferation, that is the working ground.

Hence the working ground is the mind, and hence we need to unravel all of our cartographic ideas, and try to see that cartography is part of the problem. It is the mind in action, creating our sense of world and self. This is also brought out nicely in your next post, which also makes it clear the trust worthiness of this process.

Keep up the good work

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