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Part I – Chapter 2

Thought and meditation.

Although some thinking activities count as meditative, this is true only in some cases and under certain conditions. Usually, note well, thought is considered as antithetical to meditation.

This is essentially because thought consists of auditory or visual mental phenomena that are intentional. That is, thought consists of mentally projected sounds (mostly words) and/or sights (illustrating our meanings) by which we refer to other things. Meditation, on the contrary, consists in focusing on mental or other phenomena for themselves. The meditative attitude is more experiential.

If we compare thinking to sleep or stupidity, thinking is of course more conscious, and therefore (relatively speaking) qualifies as ‘meditative’. Similarly, if we compare human thought to the cognitive power of lower animals. But in practice, much of our thinking is a sort of autonomic function of our brain, which goes on (and on and on) without our apparent voluntary participation or approval, or even seemingly against our will.

Our brain is continually flashing sounds and images into our mind. Such thinking is very dispersed and layered. A chain of thoughts arises suddenly – often triggered by some perception recalling a memory, and then proceeding through further mostly incidental associations – and goes on for some time, usually stopping due to the beginning of a new chain. Two or more such chains may occur simultaneously.

While there are thoughts that carry no noticeable emotional charge, most are accompanied by some positive or negative charge (e.g. a feeling of hope or of anger). Although some lines of thought are seemingly idle wanderings, many of them may be characterized as driven by some overall attachment (one seems driven by sexual lust, another by financial greed, another by power fantasies, etc.).

Generally, then, below the surface of our trains of thought, all sorts of influences on our volition are operating. We experience impulses, desires, emotions, and so forth. These influences all either put new trains of thought in motion or further stimulate them[1].

This has been called “the scattered mind” – but, more precisely, it is our (i.e. the self’s) attention that is going every which way.

It is as if we are constantly subject to a strong centrifugal force, pulling our attention away from the center (from stability). This can be very fatiguing – in some cases, sickening. So long as our mind operates in such an obsessive-compulsive mode, we are not its master but its powerless puppet or victim. When we think, it should be because we have chosen to do so with some intent, not because we are forced to.

An important technical function of meditation is to show us how to control our thinking; this helps us find inner peace and improves the cognitive effectiveness of our intellect.

Very often, our problem is having too many thoughts in too many directions, and meditation helps us to rein them in, and achieve a more concentrated mental life. It teaches us to become one-minded; that is, to make our attention one-pointed.

Sometimes, our problem is the opposite: we tend to get stuck in a rut with repetitive thoughts, and meditation helps us develop a more expansive mental life. It trains us in the art of extricating ourselves from mental knots; we become more open-minded and broad-minded.

Usually, both the responses of concentration and expansion are needed to bring our intellectual faculty fully under control. If we achieve such levels of inner strength, we can also on occasion truly stop thinking and for a change just experience. Such control may seem impossible at first, but as one progresses in meditation it becomes more and more feasible – and its benefits become manifest.

Thoughts are sometimes valuable instruments of knowledge; but very often, they are mere interference, useless background noise. One way to learn how to stop extraneous thinking is by use of a ‘mantra’. This technique consists in repeating some meaningless sound(s) or a word (or phrase or sentence)[2] again and again for a long period of time.

A mantra is not exactly a ‘thought’, even when it is made up of some meaningful word(s), because the meanings of the words involved do not play an essential role in the meditative process. Its role is to occupy the mind and chase off disturbances. Reciting a mantra can help us develop our mental ‘muscles’ by giving us something to concentrate on to the exclusion of all other things.

Use of a mantra is based on acknowledgement that the brain tends to favor having a mental content. We therefore give our minds a chosen auditory content (the mantra), as we might give a hungry dog a rubber bone to chew on, to keep it busy and out of trouble. This content, being meaningless or having very limited meaning, is not such as to produce chains of thought. Rather, we can use it to push off any thoughts that try to arise, using it as an excuse for our refusing to attend to them.

In this way, we fool our brain, granting it the satisfaction of having mental content but at the same time attenuating its tendency to feed us new thoughts. Eventually, it becomes possible to drop recital of the mantra, and yet not be subject to involuntary thinking. This greatly enhances our concentration on experience, which was the intent of the whole exercise.[3]

It should be mentioned that sometimes the mental maelstrom is so absorbing that one is unable even to focus on a mantra for more that a few seconds. In such cases, one has to remember again and again to make the effort of mantra recitation.

Mantra recitation is only described here as one of the ways to calm the mind, though perhaps one of the easiest. Other methods might of course be used to achieve the same result, like meditation on one’s breath, on one’s body or on some visual symbol[4].

After some practice of mantra or other forms of meditation, it becomes possible to control one’s mind by direct will, without resort to such artificial methods. Having already (in this session or previous sessions) experienced a relatively calm state of mind, one learns to remain attached to it or keep returning to it.

It should be added that there are also methods of meditation that resort to meaningful thought, to the same effect.

Prayer is such a method, because if one prays correctly one is intensely concentrated on one’s prayer, to the exclusion of all other mental content. Note well: it is not because formal[5] prayer is often repetitive (like a mantra) that it functions as a meditation, but because of its demands on our attention. If one prays without investing effort, letting all sorts of stray thoughts occupy one’s mind in the background while one utters hollow words, one cannot be said to be meditating, let alone truly praying.

Repetition of a Divine or divine name is (in my opinion) a subset of prayer. This practice is found in most traditions, including (to name a few) in Jewish kabbalah (e.g. that of Abraham Abulafia), Sufism (dikhr) and Buddhism (e.g. the nembutsu). Although such recital acts in much the same way as a mantra, it is best classified as prayer, since the use of that specific name is considered essential to its efficacy by its practitioners. It is not meant as a mere mind-filler, but as a key to the door of some specific spiritual realm.

More precisely, one can distinguish three levels of meditation (in Hebrew, kavanah) in prayer, each of which of course has many degrees. At the lowest level, one at least makes the effort to focus on the words one utters (from memory, or by reading the sounds out of a prayer book), without thinking of irrelevant things. At the next level, one makes the additional effort to concentrate on the plain meanings of the words and sentences one is uttering, so that they are not just sounds.

At the highest level, one additionally takes care to adopt appropriate attitudes. The latter include: being aware Whom one is addressing, where one is (if in a holy place), feeling awe and love, and – as appropriate to current circumstances – expressing submission, worship, penitence, entreaty, gratitude, etc. Here, then, one is relating oneself to the prayer or to the object of prayer.

Of course, one usually weaves in and out of the different levels and degrees of attention, depending on one’s motivation, mood, stress, worries, distress, etc. One’s measure of concentration divulges the importance one attaches to the prayer. If one prays patiently and intently, it signifies a certain amount of sincerity. But prayer with a scattered mind is not entirely worthless, because most people have difficulty controlling their attention.

Note in this context that other forms of meditation can be beneficial to concentration during prayer. One must, for a start, show one’s seriousness of purpose by eliminating as many external disturbances as possible. Trying to pray while the TV is turned on is obviously not very favorable. Moreover, it is recommended that before formal prayer one sits or stands quietly for some time, till one reaches a palpable inner silence, stillness and serenity, a calming of one’s thoughts, movements and emotions – one’s subsequent prayer will then be greatly enhanced.

Similar comments can be made with regard to study of religious texts, or to philosophical (or other) discourse. Insofar as such thinking activity trains us to concentrate our attention, in various ways and to various degrees, it may be classed as meditative. But to the extent that it is done ‘unconsciously’, it is mere thought and not meditation.

The koan exercise, by the way, has a similar function. The koan is not intended to divert our attention, but to strengthen the psyche. As the practitioner puzzles over his chosen absurd riddle, his attention becomes more and more intensely focused and exclusive. Without such increasing mental concentration, the exercise is a waste of time.

Ordinary thought, more often than not, is an obstacle to successful meditation. If, for instance, during a tai chi move your mind wanders off to the pretty girl watching, or you wonder what you will have for supper tonight, or you reflect on something annoying someone said to you yesterday – you are bound to wobble, or forget some move, or make a wrong move.

If an activity requires a certain amount of concentration, and such concentration is not provided, the performance is bound to be imperfect. Whatever one’s meditation, one has to constantly make an effort to concentrate, and not allow oneself to just ‘go through the motions’ while thinking of other things. Pretending to meditate is not meditation.

Mastering one’s thinking activity, then, is an essential part of all meditative endeavors. So long as anarchy reigns in one’s mind, one’s consciousness remains at a superficial level. Paradoxically, it is only when thought is brought under control that it can begin to dig deep and fulfill its cognitive function.

[1] For example, a sensation in our sex organ may cause us to remember a past lover, which in turn may cause reflection on marriage and divorce, etc. This line of thought might then suddenly swerve in another direction entirely, e.g. because we recalled a piece of music heard at that time; then we perhaps think about the singer, his political opinions, etc. And it goes on and on.

[2] Every tradition proposes mantras. In Judaism, I suppose any verse from the Psalms or Prayer book would do (but beware of using any Name of G-d in vain); one might try, for instance “Oseh shalom bimrumav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru amen” (May He who makes peace in His heights make peace on us and all Israel, amen), or more briefly “Shalom”. An example from the East (Heart Sutra) is “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha” (which means, I am told: Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond, greetings enlightenment); another one is simply “Om”, pronounced deep and long, like the Tibetans. Some people say almost any statement can be used as a mantra. This may be true (though I doubt it), but what seems clear (to my limited knowledge context) is that the mantra must be voluntarily adopted. One cannot use a catchy tune or song that has already infiltrated one’s mind as a mantra, because that is precisely the sort of mental content that a mantra is supposed to clean out of the mind! Thus, beware of advertising jingles, or pop music or songs – they have been pumped into your system by the media, because of their stickiness and with very commercial or political motives: they are not convertible into mantras. Avoid such mental viruses like the plague: they will not liberate your mind, but enslave it or at least thoroughly fatigue it. A good mantra is not mentally sticky – what makes it ‘good’ is precisely that we have to make an effort to keep it in the mind.

[3] Although the primary utility of a mantra is to clear the mind, it can also teach us to watch our thoughts come and go without getting too involved in them, i.e. absorbed in them, carried off by them. What the mantra does here is teach us how to develop a mental platform on which we can sit and watch our thoughts (verbal, visual/auditory and emotional mental phenomena) with some detachment. The Subject of consciousness is gradually distanced from the mental objects of consciousness, either by suppressing them or at least by objectifying them.

[4] Like a Jewish six-pointed star – or a Christian cross or an Islamic crescent. Christians also gaze at icons or statues. Buddhists use complex mandalas, filled with significant drawings, as objects of meditation, and also gaze at statues.

[5] I am of course here referring to prayers found in prayer books, rather than to prayers one makes up as one goes along.

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