Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS
Book 4. More Meditations
Chapter 5. Various remarks on meditation
Attention and intention. Cognition may be said to have two aspects: attention, the experiential, receptive aspect; and intention, the rational, active aspect. Thus, perception and intuition are attentive, whereas conception, proposition, argument and evaluation are intentional. Both of these cognitive acts involve an effort, i.e. some willpower by the one cognizing (the Subject); but the volition involved is different in each case.
The effort of attention is twofold – an effort to cognitively adhere to some object(s), and an effort to avoid distraction by other objects or purposes. Thus, this effort has both a positive component and negative component; its Agent (the Subject) is in a sort of tension: pushing in one direction and pulling in an opposite direction. The effort of intention is likewise or even more complex, involving diverse mental projections and manipulations, and sundry acts of will and valuation.
Meditation tends towards pure cognition – that is to say, cognition without volition. This means that when we meditate, we gradually diminish intention and opt for attention; moreover, our attention slowly becomes effortless, i.e. we become established in it in the way of a natural place to be. At that stage, there is no paradoxical tension between cognition and volition, and we are peaceful observers. This is called contemplation.
In the context of meditation, everything is merely part of the scenery. You may feel pain somewhere, or some impatience may unsettle you, or many thoughts may assail you – but you remain unaffected. You do not cling to passing sensations, feelings, imaginings or discourses. You transcend all such phenomena, and focus on the here and now. You remain aware and conscious; you maximize such alertness and mindfulness.
The crux of meditation is presence of mind, or more accurately put présence d’esprit (presence of spirit). That is to say, meditation is generating self-awareness; it is being aware of your self – being fully present as a self (spirit, soul), while sitting or moving. This does not mean to say being and doing “self-consciously” (artificially, awkwardly), but is to be contrasted to being and doing “unconsciously”, i.e. performing absent-mindedly, without mindfulness.
The nature of mind. An outcome, or the outcome, of meditation has been described (using Buddhist terms) as knowing or resting in “the nature of mind”. This somewhat cryptic phrase seems to mean: “what mind really is”.
Thus, enlightenment is or comes about through lucid awareness of the mind or mentality as such as it naturally is, i.e. its essential character whatever changes occur; or it consists in recovering the natural state of mind, i.e. the spiritual position or posture in which consciousness is effortlessly full and optimal.
The superlative consciousness concerned is moreover described as the “ground of consciousness” or “pure consciousness”. By this is meant that it is always present in the background of or underlying all ordinary consciousness – only, we must be sufficiently alert to notice it. Meditation is thus an effort to awaken consciousness to what is already present, rather than an attempt to produce something absent.
Furthermore, this way of viewing is said to be “non-dualistic”. As used in Buddhism, the expression “dualistic” seems to refer to our tendency to oscillate between yes and no. Some say: “it is”, others contend: “it is not”; today I think: “it is”, tomorrow I may think: “it is not”. This sort of fatiguing decision-making seems to aim at finding out the truth, i.e. reality – but in fact (according to Buddhists) it distracts us from what is already evident right under our nose.
Another interpretation of non-dualism is made with reference to the Subject and object of consciousness. Ordinarily, we distinguish these three aspects of any event of appearance; but in enlightenment, we are told, this distinction disappears and all existence seems like one thing. Subject (i.e. that which experiences), object (i.e. that which is experienced) and the consciousness relating them merge together into the single and unique One. Thus, meditation is often described as a way to get away from dualistic thinking.
Subject and object as one. Actually, I have experienced something close to such unification of subject and object in meditation. What one experiences is not so much the subject becoming the object or vice versa – it is not an equation of individual things, as the wording might lead one to think – but rather the impression that the whole field of one’s awareness (at that time, ‘here and now’) is a single, continuous event. In this single field, the sensations of one’s body (which are powerful components of one’s sense of separate selfhood) are experienced as being objects just as any sight or sound one is currently experiencing. Simultaneously, everything in this field of awareness is experienced as imbedded in one’s consciousness of it, including ‘oneself’ (which in this context has no particular location).
Evidently, in such a state of consciousness, the idea of self becomes more diffused, or may disappear or even be forgotten. We no longer feel the ordinary strong attachment to the bodily sensations and mental impressions; these are all seen and felt as mere little bubbles of experience in the unitary field of awareness. All thoughts, worries, pleasures and the like appear as momentary attention-grabbing events in the essential unity of experience. Thus, the various components of the false self lose their weight, and the apparent self is seen not to be the real self. What we ordinarily cling to as our self is understood to be an illusory self with a particular location, not to be confused with the more all-embracing real self.
With this positive experience in mind, it is easier to understand seemingly paradoxical statements made by Zen masters and others, to the effect that the self “both is and is not” or “neither is nor is not”. The illusory self is indeed experienced in ordinary consciousness, but in a higher state of consciousness it is seen not to really be the self, i.e. to be an illusory appearance. Thus, it is and it is not – it is phenomenally, but it is not ‘noumenally’. This simply means that the intuited self is more real than the phenomenal self. Moreover, the real self cannot properly be said to be or exist, because it does not exist in the way of a delimited individual entity, but in a more diffuse manner underlying all consciousness. However, it cannot be said not to be or exist, because there is indeed something there that experiences and wills and values. Thus, it neither is nor is not.
Cultivate a sense of wonder. In sitting meditation (zazen or other ways), we encounter our spirit (or soul), in relation to mind (at an early level of meditation, when thoughts and fantasies are still present) and then alone (when mind is transcended). In moving meditation (such as the kinhin walking meditation, Tai Chi or Yoga), we experience the ability of spirit to move matter as well as mind.
One should always reflect on the miracles of consciousness and will; these powers of ours, however limited in scope, should never fail or cease to fascinate us. Our spirit is not divorced from mind and matter, but interacts with them. Somehow, cognition shows us some things, while volition allows us to affect some of them.
Through volition, we have some degree of power, not only over our mind, but also over our body. Volition is a causal relation between spirit, on the one hand, and the mind and body complex it animates, on the other (although we colloquially describe this, imprecisely, as “mind over matter”).
By cultivating a sense of wonder in regard to our possession of consciousness and will, we can learn to steady and concentrate our attention on consciousness and our energy in will, which efforts are the essence of both sitting meditation and moving meditation. These are the most direct means to ever deepening self-understanding, and self-mastery.
We should also be constantly aware of the powers of mind and matter over our spirit – that is to say, how these domains may (causatively) affect and/or influence us. Affecting means something causing, while influence refers to the experience or idea of something causing. In either case, causation (determinism) is involved; but in affectation the cause directly has its effect on us, whereas in influence, the same cause has its effect on us indirectly, via our awareness of it to some degree.
We should also in this context note the powers of different individual souls to affect and influence each other, at least through the medium of matter and mind (physical force, verbal discourse, etc.), and possibly even (keeping an open mind on this issue) more directly, by means of telepathy and telekinesis.
Meditate instead of thinking. Most of us, most of the time, use thought as a sort of self-entertainment. We find it hard to bear idle moments, and use thought as a distraction to furnish our minds. Many of us regard having a blank mind as a waste of time, and feel obliged to occupy our minds with thought. If we are at the toilet, driving a car or waiting in a line, we keep busy thinking, unable to stay quiet inside. If other people are around, we may chat with them, engaging as it were in collective entertainment.
Instead of thus using thought as a pastime or mind-filler, use meditation. Meditation can occupy you just as well, and at the same do you good. Thus, in everyday life, whatever you are doing, try and get into the habit of meditation: consciously feeling you body, watching your breath or your thoughts, mindfully reciting a mantra or a psalm, etc.
To meditate, one has to remember to meditate; so this effort of memory is primary. When you sit down to meditate, always remind yourself that you are sitting down to meditate, and then keep reminding yourself of that intent when you find your mind straying. If you sit without such conscious resolve, it will likely take you much longer to actually begin meditation.
Practicing meditation even after you get up from your sitting meditation will greatly improve your next sitting meditation, and is moreover a major goal of sitting meditation. Here again, even if you have generally resolved to practice meditation in everyday life, it won’t happen if you forget your resolution. Therefore, remind yourself again and again.
Meditation on velleities. Self-knowledge is achieved by meditatively observing not only our thoughts and actions, but (more subtly) our velleities in thought and action. Velleity is starting but unfinished volition. Often, we are unaware of our own valuations. But we can discover them indirectly through observation of our velleities.
For instance, I express my desire for a girl I met by clinging to her image in my mind; or more forcefully, by imagining myself putting my arm around her and kissing her, and so on (progressively indulging in more detailed fantasies). This is a first degree of velleity – in thought. I may thereafter choose to put these thoughts into action. For example, I may communicate my desire to the girl by chatting her up and eventually offering her a light kiss, and observing her reaction (whether she draws back decisively or lightly kisses me back). This is velleity in action; it is a tentative exploration that may end up with a full commitment to the desire.
During meditation, and in life in general, one should be alert to such less than explicit mental and physical activities – and not focus exclusively on the more obvious events.
Meditation as alchemy. We should not, out of a desire to universalize meditation, forget its ethical aspect, i.e. the fact that it improves individuals, makes them more virtuous, orients them to higher values. I have in mind, when saying this, certain sublime Buddhist teachings, but it is obviously a more general truth.
- Manifold desires, sexual lust, power lust, greed for money and belongings, dependencies on people or on substances, bad habits, compulsions, obsessions, and all other forms of attachment and “selfishness” are slowly turned into non-attachment and unselfish helpfulness.
- The anger and hatred, the coldness and enmity, which emerge from the actual or potential frustration of desire, are gradually replaced by serenity, loving-kindness, warmth and peacefulness. When one is essentially content and secure, one is never lacking or afraid, impatient or short-tempered.
- Ignorance, delusion and foolishness eventually become enlightenment, liberation and wisdom. The source of desire and frustration is a fundamental ignorance; it is a tragic error at the very beginning of our existence, by which we misapprehend its true nature. We then attach to the surface of things, and fail to notice their deeper unity, and thus get sucked into the vortex of samsara.
Meditation is a sort of alchemy, a cauldron wherein gross materialism is transmuted into spiritual purity and elevation. Its ultimate purpose is to return us to the nirvana that is our natural heritage.
Poetry in motion. In the individual practice of a Tai Chi form, an attitude I find valuable to adopt is that of a wave of water in motion. I imagine my whole body as a wave of seawater, swelling, flowing, ebbing, moving back and forth continuously every which way, twisting and turning, suspended momentarily then breaking onto the rocks at the shore, pulling back, sweeping round from another direction, pounding the rocks again, on and on, without end, never quite repeating the same move, always sticking close to the rocks, enveloping them, caressing them, wearing them down. Nevertheless, all movements should be very slow and conscious.
When fighting an actual adversary (or many), I do not view him (or them) as represented by rocks, because rocks are too still and tough. Rather, I view the opponent as a swimmer in the sea that I am. I imagine this bad swimmer desperately trying to stay afloat in the rough sea of my Tai Chi. The waters surge all about him, drag him down into the depths, throw him up in the air, turn him this way and that, never leaving him the time to breathe or rest, till he finally gives up and thankfully drowns.
This self-image of water in motion is very valuable in Tai Chi training or combat, because it well induces in us the full and empty, the continuity, elasticity and reactivity, the inevitable power, the adhesion, and many other such characteristics of masterly Tai Chi. In some circumstances, this water might become even more insubstantial, and we identify rather with a cloud of smoke – something elusive, ungraspable.
The Tai Chi master Yang Ch’eng-fu used the same image when he wrote: “If the ch’i is not blocked it is like the sea wind which blows up waves and billows. … The whole body is as one ch’i.”
Such holistic approach to Tai Chi is greatly enabled by the regular practice of sitting meditation. The mind must be empty of distracting thoughts to be capable of assuming such watery identity; and it must be capable of sustained concentration to make the image last for an hour or so. The body must be profoundly calm before it can muster the energy of a flowing wave, an irresistible tsunami.
Moreover, meditation gives us maximal sensitivity to the states and intentions of the opponent, so that we can judge his condition and predict his next moves correctly.