Sunday January 3, 2010
Firstly, I should wish all visitors to thinkBuddha.org 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 Subjects of the World: Darwin’s Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in nature 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.
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