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Part I – Chapter 1

What is meditation?

We may define a meditation as a voluntary exercise intended to increase awareness, sustained over some time.

May be counted as meditative endeavor: any volitional activity intended to increase one’s own awareness, generally or in a particular field (e.g. mentally, physically, socially, religiously, etc.). The term ‘increase awareness’ is here intended very broadly, to include all other similar expressions for the intensification, concentration, making more acute, focusing, deepening, heightening, raising, widening[1], enlarging, expansion or prolonging – of consciousness (or attention).

Meditation, note well, includes a time factor. It implies intentionally prolonging the duration of awareness at a certain level. This may mean sustaining attention at one’s usual level for more time than usual; or surpassing one’s usual level of attention, for one’s usual span of time or longer. A merely momentary burst of extra consciousness can hardly be called meditation: it has to go on for an extended period of time.

Meditation on something[2], then, means lingering over it, devoting some attention to it, more than usual and/or for more time than usual. At first, one may succeed in sustaining the attention only briefly before wandering off; after a while, one may succeed in generating brief bursts intermittently; eventually, one may succeed in staying focused continuously, for a longer and longer time. Such improvements of performance depend on regular training.

Our definition of meditation thus covers a wide array of specific purposes, methods and techniques, among which we may mention the following. Note that these categories and examples are given off the cuff, without pretending to propose an exhaustive list or a taxonomy. Note that some of the categories given overlap; or again, some of the examples given really fall under two or more categories, though listed under only one.

· Focusing on touch sensations: feeling one’s whole body or some part of it, observing one’s feelings, sentiments, emotions, being aware of contact points, lines and surfaces(e.g. in yoga nidra).

· Postures and movements: e.g. sitting strait and immobile, walking slowly and mindfully (kinhin), yoga asanas and mudras, tai chi exercises, Hassidic dancing, Dervish whirling.

· Breathing awareness and exercises: e.g. feeling one’s breath, yoga pranayamas, chi kung.

· Focusing on “bodily energy centers, pathways, flows”[3]: e.g. yoga chakras and prana, Chinese meridians and points and chi flows, the sephirot of kabbalah.

· Focusing on visual data: e.g. observing random or selected outer or inner sights, concentrating on candlelight, a symbol, a mandala or a statue.

· Focusing on auditory data: e.g. observing random or selected outer or inner sounds, making music, chanting religious chants or reciting a mantra.

· Thought awareness or control: e.g. observing one’s streams of visual memories and imaginations and of verbal thoughts, blocking such streams; metta meditation (developing universal love).

· General activities performed with full awareness: e.g. karma yoga or samu (doing chores), zen poetry, calligraphy, drawing and painting, gardening, flower arrangement, tea ceremony.

· Involving the thinking mind: e.g. prayer, study of religious texts (primary or secondary), useful philosophical reflection, puzzling over a koan.[4]

With regard to prayer: it is of course primarily intended as a means of communicating to God (or alleged incarnations of Him or gods or godlike creatures or even saints), by way of praise, invocation, confession, supplication, thanks, blessing, and so forth. Nonetheless, it is also often consciously intended as a way of getting spiritually[5] closer to or communing with the deity concerned, and in this perspective may be described as an attempt to expand or intensify awareness (of the deity).[6]

Similarly, textual study (e.g. Torah or Talmud study in Judaism) has many aspects. On the surface, its objective is to absorb the teachings within the text. But practitioners consider the information thus received to be a permanent communication from God (or the like), whose meaning is perpetually renewed according to the current life context of the reader. Here again, then, a consciousness-raising communion occurs, or is pursued.

A koan may be described as a riddle that is superficially meaningful but insolvable by rational or obvious means[7]. Its role (according to practitioners) is psychological – to fatigue the rational faculty to such an extent that it abdicates and allows reliance on a more intuitive kind of consciousness, one more able to break through to absolute reality. A credible reply to a koan can only be given by someone who has actually attained realization, and is only recognizable as such by someone who also has.

Meditation exercises are not necessarily mutually exclusive; it is sometimes useful to use two or more of them at the same time. Thus, for instance, one might meditate on one’s body posture and breathing while reciting a mantra. The mind is a complex domain; it can function on many unrelated planes simultaneously. For example, one can remember yesterday’s events at home, while trying to solve a problem at work, while humming a tune; again, one might at once have verbal thoughts and visualize things.

Note that if awareness increases or persists spontaneously, i.e. without ad hoc volitional intent or effort (in the present or a sufficiently recent past), it is not counted as a product of meditation as such. It should also be noted that not all means used to allegedly raise awareness do indeed raise awareness – some techniques have the opposite effect: they diminish consciousness, they make it lower, narrower or shallower.

Thus, the use of psychotropic drugs like LSD or marijuana may not properly be regarded as meditation (even if such use was voluntary), for though they may give a momentary illusion of “high”, they in fact on the whole diminish the scope of consciousness. Similarly, some techniques used in African Voodoo cults or other sorceries to produce “trances” would not be counted as meditative, insofar as they are found to in fact block awareness. Indeed, many would argue that certain common forms of religious, social or political indoctrination, which are claimed to raise awareness, in fact do – and are moreover secretly intended to do – the exact opposite.

In sum, ‘meditation’ refers to any means that in fact produces the effect of intensified or lengthened awareness. The mere claim that an activity has such effect does not automatically qualify it as meditation. In some cases, we may be uncertain as to whether to regard the activity under consideration as meditative or counterproductive.

Meditation is intended to awaken one, not to put one to sleep. Whatever the technique used, the essence of meditation is relaxed watchfulness and mindfulness. Note this well. It is not a matter of by force grasping for something, but of sustaining one’s alertness, one’s “presence of mind” (or more precisely put, one’s spiritual presence). It is naturally, with good humor, repeatedly remembering to be maximally aware. This implies a balance of determination and adaptation.

Will is involved in meditation, in the way of effort to increase one’s receptiveness and attentiveness, so that one notices all that is going on. Also, as a meditation session progresses, the meditator (i.e. the one meditating) has to be sensitive to changing circumstances and needs, and flexibly apply the appropriate technique(s), to make the meditation advance and not stagnate. One cannot force things, but must proceed with judgment and with precision. This is called “using skillful means”.

Thus, the means and the end of meditation are essentially the same. Awareness is begotten by awareness; awareness begets awareness.

The aim of meditation, note well, is not only to increase awareness punctually, during the time one is meditating, or by a spillover effect for a short while thereafter – but also to make increased awareness a general habit in one’s life.

The lessons we learn from ‘formal’ meditation sessions ought to be carried over in one’s everyday thoughts and activities, in the way of ‘informal’ practice of mindfulness[8]. Although formal meditation is passively beneficial to times of non-meditation anyway, its full benefit becomes manifest to the extent that one actively continues to effectively meditate in the midst of ordinary living.

[1] Broadening of consciousness should be understood not only as (like a beam of light) ‘covering more space’, but more generally in the sense of ‘bringing more things into consciousness’, i.e. additional external or internal data or considerations. Psychologically, this may be taken to mean making things that were previously unconscious or subconscious more fully conscious. For examples, one’s motives during action become clearer or one’s habitual responses become more evident.

[2] That is, on some object – in the widest sense of the term ‘object’ (i.e. be it material, mental, spiritual, or whatever).

[3] This involves touch sensations and imaginations.

[4] N.B. Although some prayer or study or koan activity may be counted as meditation, it does not follow that all such activity is necessarily meditative. Some of it has the opposite, soporific effect; it is used as an escape, rather than as an instrument of consciousness development.

[5] I use the term ‘spiritual’ in a not very mystical sense, simply intending: ‘pertaining to the spirit (or soul)’.

[6] For example, every time one blesses God for the food one is about to eat or has eaten, one is reminding oneself of Him – i.e. raising one’s awareness from the material level of ingesting food to a spiritual level involving reflection on its source and purpose.

[7] For example: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – the answer to this question is not rational (“one hand cannot clap” or “one hand clapping makes no audible sound”), nor even demonstrative (waving your hand back and forth as if clapping).

[8] For example, meditation teaches one to intend (thoughts or actions) with a minimum (if any at all) mental or oral verbal expression; thereafter, one speaks less, or more efficiently, i.e. no more than necessary for the task at hand, to oneself or to others.

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