Meditating and Knowing

Sunday January 3, 2010


Firstly, I should wish all visitors to a happy New Year, if a little belatedly. Since I got back from retreat, I’ve had my head down working on the next philosophy book, and it has been good to have some time away from teaching, and a bit of the clarity that comes from meditation, to really get some thoughts on paper.

So for a few days, we were up before five in the morning and on our cushions for the first sit of the day. And when the sky started at last to lighten, the view from the window of the meditation room when I opened my eyes was – pleasingly – that of a bare branch against the sky, strikingly similar to the image at the head of this site. Anyway, the question that I was preoccupied with on this retreat was this: what kind of knowledge comes from meditation?

I should give some background to this question. I’ve been recently reading Paul Sheldon Davies’s book which explores the various impediments there are – either cultural or more biologically rooted – that stand in the way of understanding ourselves and our minds. Davies draws a great deal on the work of Daniel Wegner, who I have written about before on this blog in connection with the experience of agency or of free will, and makes a strong case for the errancy of first-person accounts when it comes to what we think is going on in our own minds. There’s a lot of literature on this subject today, but it boils down to one thing: that when it comes to accounting for what our minds are doing, we are really far too confident in the accuracy of the stories that we spin. We do not have conscious access to a great deal of what goes on in our minds, and a great deal of the things that we think are going on, when we look more closely at them, are not really going on at all.

Now this is interesting in terms of meditation for sometimes it is suggested that in meditation one can experience the arising and the passing away of mental events directly, without any mediation, such that the mind becomes transparent to itself. And whilst something goes on in meditation – a settling down of the everyday noise, greater attunement to the various fizzes and pops and crackles of the mind going about its business – what interests me is the question of what degree of knowledge we can really hope for from meditation. What I want to know is this: how transparent? How inerrant is this knowledge that comes from meditation? Because I see no a priori reason to assume that this knowledge gained from meditation is any less subject to distortion, confabulation and “spin” than the daily, non-meditative chunterings of our mind. Or, to put it differently, if we can be wrong about things that seem convincing in daily life, can we also be wrong about things that seem convincing in meditation?

These questions might seem to be hard to answer; but at the same time, I think that it would be perfectly possible to design some cunning experiments to test whether the kind of first-person perspective that is claimed to arise from meditation is any more accurate than the first-person perspectives of our day-to-day lives. And even if we do not do the experiments in the meditation hall itself, it is said that there are those who are so well established in meditation that they can keep this kind of awareness up when they are not on the cushions, so we could test them in the lab whilst not engaged in meditation, and see if the have any less propensity to error. This might be a lot of fun. One could run the kinds of cunning experiments that researchers in psychology like to perform to see if there is a difference between what is actually going on, and first person accounts of what the subject thinks is going on (see Sue Blackmore’s website for some details on the experiments undertaken by Wegner, for example), but do these experiments on meditative virtuosos. And we might, of course, find that there is a difference in performance. But I suspect that we might find something else rather interesting: that these meditators were, like the rest of us, saddled with human minds that are largely opaque to themselves. If this was the case, then there would be interesting consequences, not least for how seriously we could take at least some of the claims made for meditation.

It may be, however, that there would be rather less than general enthusiasm at the idea of taking part in experiments such as this. A lot of the research into meditation tends to be into the benefits of meditation. Experiments aiming to explore the limits of meditation, rather than the spiffiness of meditation (although they might tell us some interesting things) might have a rather harder time attracting recruits.

Even if seasoned meditators, like the rest of us, have minds that are opaque to themselves, I do think that meditation as a method may still have some kind of important role in helping us to understand our minds, even if it is not a matter of bringing us direct knowledge of the mind’s inner workings. The role of meditation may be more negative than positive. For there are, broadly speaking, two different kinds of rhetoric when it comes to meditation in Buddhism. Very crudely put, on the one hand there is the rhetoric that speaks of meditation as a path to inerrant, inner knowledge – meditation is a way of knowing our minds, of reaching certain knowledge, and on the other hand there is the rhetoric that speaks of meditation as a means of overturning the things that we think we know, as a means of unknowing or not knowing. And I have a hunch – it is no more than that – that the second approach to meditation may have a really rather powerful role to play in the understanding of the mind. For many of our everyday concepts for dealing with the mind seem to me to be concepts that are rooted in complex metaphysical stories, stories that (as the Madhyamikas might like to say) tend to dissolve under analysis. Much of what I read on philosophical approaches to consciousness seems to be founded on a mass of false first-person “certainties”, certainties that some forms of meditation can call radically into question. Could it be that meditation could be a way of freeing us up from the myths that we spin about our minds (the myth of agency, the myth of some kind of inner, substantial self, and so on). I like to think of this not as a form of phenomenology (gaining data on what the mind is like) but as a form of unphenomenology (unpicking the assumptions that we have about what the mind is like, recognising that we don’t really know what we think we know). And perhaps in the space that is thereby created, we might be able to come to a quieter, more sober, more subtle and truer perspective on what it means to be a minded, embodied creature, here in the midst of the world.

# · David Chapman

These are important questions that have not been asked before, to my knowledge anyway.

A related question I have been chewing on recently (while supposedly meditating, on retreat). It is common to say “with experience of meditation method X, we discover Y”. Usually I find that when I do practice X, I do indeed seem to discover Y. But I have to wonder to what extent this is a priming effect. Would I have discovered Y if I had not been told that is what I would experience?

Also relatedly. After putting the subject aside for several years, I have been reading Madhyamaka texts recently. It is often — or usually — difficult to know what their authors were trying to say. I find that I can make sense of them mostly only with constant reference to my experience of meditation. That gives me a model, so to speak, in almost a Tarskian sense. If I assume that Shantarakshita must be talking about the things I experience in meditation, that puts a lot of constraint on interpretation. Without that, I don’t think I could make any real sense of the Madhyamikas — there are just too many speculative ways to construe their vague and implausible statements.

There are several problems here, though. First, my experience of meditation is probably heavily influenced by my prior understanding of Madhyamaka. That’s not necessarily fatal — maybe this is a positive hermeneutic spiral, tacking back and forth between meditative experience and conceptual understanding. But it could also be a confabulation that diverges into fantasy. Second, sometimes the traditional descriptions don’t seem to correspond very well with my experience, or are sufficiently vague that I’m not sure which experiences line up with which descriptions. Third, as you say, I don’t really know what my experience of meditation is, even as I am experiencing it.

That said, I persevere, having some confidence that there’s something important to be learned (both from meditation and Madhyamaka) even while I am unsure quite what.


# · jr

Want to go gather firewood sometime. :-)

# · Clarke Scott (Loden Jinpa)


There is something to this problem but, recall that for Geluk reading of the Two Truths at least, Buddhism does not claim that there is a “real” truth to be found in meditation. There are two truth: AN Ultimate and a conventional. Yet, even the ultimate truth (emptiness) is also empty. In other words, all truth is conventional. Nagarjuna tells us because things are empty, enlightenment is possible. If things were really real, nothing could be done about your current situation.


# · Will

Just back from collecting firewood…
Thanks for the comment David – the question of how to actually know what experience is even whilst experiencing it is a genuine one, I think. And a puzzling and fascinating one.
Loden, I’m glad that it might be possible to do something about my current situation. As for “real” truths, it does of course depend on the traditions that you are following – there are traditions that are very clear that there are real truths that one discovers. Which is why the Geluk position is attractive and persuasive in that it refuses the claim that we somehow “hit bottom” in our investigation.
So if we then say that all truth is conventional (happy with this, I think), then we can bracket out any concerns with ultimate truths, and still the question remains: what kind of knowing is it that goes on in meditation, and what are the limits of this knowing?
So much for my 6pm internet curfew resolution a few weeks’ back. Anyway, night all!

# · Robert Ellis

The way I would prefer to interpret the points you’ve made is that meditation (like any other experiences) does not give us access to truth. However, like any other experience, it can help to provide justification. It does this, not by providing new information about the phenomenal world, but by focusing energies and supporting the conditions for provisionality of belief, making it more probable that we will reconsider our sense-experiences more flexibly than we would have done otherwise. However, it only does this in relation to the conditions of mind existing prior to the meditation.

I’d also suggest that meditation should be seen primarily as aesthetic experience. We don’t expect immersion in a roomful of Mark Rothkos to give us “knowledge”, but, given the right conditions, it might alter the way you look at the rest of the gallery.

Happy New Year!

# · Will

Robert – meditation as a means of “supporting the conditions for provisionality of belief, making it more probable that we will reconsider our sense-experiences more flexibly than we would have done otherwise…” Very well put, I think.

And the idea of meditation as aesthetic experience could be very fruitful as well.

Happy New Year to you too,

# · Jayarava

Hi Will

You say: “what interests me is the question of what degree of knowledge we can really hope for from meditation.”

This is a variation on the age old question. I think this question underlies virtually all of the doctrinal innovations, all of the philosophy, of Buddhism.

Surely there is no need to design experiments to test the results of meditation because every time you interact with someone you are testing and being tested? To what degree are you generous, kind, patient? Do other people notice and respond positively to the changes? It ain’t rocket science.

You ask: “Could it be that meditation could be a way of freeing us up from the myths that we spin about our minds (the myth of agency, the myth of some kind of inner, substantial self, and so on).”

Could it be? It obviously and explicitly is! The technical term for the myths/narratives/stories is prapañca, which in turn gives rise to dṛṣṭi etc.

Conceiving of the Buddhist path in terms of a search for certain (i.e. Absolute) knowledge or truth, and/or end points is just a mistake (of the eternalistic type). Learning about the nature of experience allows us to appreciate experience for what it is. We can adapt to situations better by understanding the nature of experience. As far as I can imagine there is no natural limit to this process of learning and adapting.

I think the TED video of Jill Bolte Taylor provides some insights into the nature and extent of possible changes – even though hers were induced by a stroke, she describes them in very similar terms to mystics the world over but with the precision of a neuro-scientist. Though of course we are not all mystics.

Rather than focussing on the knowledge, I’d focus on the relationship to experience. Robert’s example is a good one. When we see the rest of the gallery differently after viewing the Rothkos, we know that we do. But that knowledge is incidental – it is the change in our relationship to the experience that makes it interesting. Thus also with meditation.

# · roni

Hi Will,

I agree with Jayarava that the point is not gaining knowledge. Or the goal of Buddhist practice is not to find or reach “the Truth”. The truth is given, actually 4 of them. :)

As far as I know the Buddhist tradition itself is aware of the pitfalls of interpreting experiences in meditation as “true knowledge”, e.g. a section in Visuddhimagga about meditative states often mistaken for nibbana.

But back to knowledge… Can it be said that the truth/knowledge according to the Buddha is the truth/knowledge that there is no (context-independent)truth/knowledge? Was he simply a sceptic?

Thanks for your reply and also for this great blog,


# · Jeff

Another question to explore –

The state of mind gained from Buddhism – is it a constructed state of awareness no more natural or real or basic than “normal” awareness, just different, though it’s supposed to be better and presumably make you a better, free person. (who sets up the standard of what’s better, anyway?) Or does Buddhism unveil/reveal “real” awareness as many people believe as compared to the typical supposedly “unreal” “false” awareness we just stumble into as result of being born.

Are buddhist mind states self fulfilling prophecies resulting from the concurrent philosophy and interpretations that attend buddhist training?. Ingrained, en-culturated and trained mental placebo effects? Endless hours of mental focus and philosophical indoctrination can tweak the mind in all sorts of directions that seem very real and valid to the participant and mutually validating to all who particiapte in the particular culture- be it Utah polygamist or urban Zen practitioner!

# · Robert Ellis

Jayarava wrote,
“When we see the rest of the gallery differently after viewing the Rothkos, we know that we do.”

I wonder why you feel the need to say “know” here, Jayarava? Why, for that matter, does the Buddhist tradition feel the need to constantly make claims about knowledge and truth? Why not “We experience doing so” or something of that kind? The knowledge may be incidental, as you put it, but there’s still a claim about knowledge going on : a Cartesian certainty about the interpretation of experience. Why bother with it? Why not just talk, as I tried to above, about ways of improving the justifiability of our approach to experience?

I hope Jayarava won’t feel this is pouncing unfairly on one stray word – that’s not my intention. It just seems to me to be quite a significant word, and one that seems to lie at the heart of the contradictions in the way Buddhism commonly presents itself in the West. To caricature the Buddhist view of knowledge somewhat: “We don’t know anything – Oh but we do really, though not in that sort of way – though we don’t really know anything, do we? – yes, but we do, sort of indirectly, so that we can claim to have the truth even though we don’t really….”. Why not just dispense with all that and say instead “We don’t know anything, but we can have more justified ways of approaching our experience”?

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