Appendix 1: Using Meditation
In the present essay, my purpose is to introduce the reader to what is meant by ‘meditation’ and how the practice of such introspection affects one’s philosophical positions. I illustrate below how phenomenological insights may be generated by means of observations and reflections during or after meditation. The conversations below are not intended as lessons in meditation. They were not made in a single sitting, but over many sessions. Of course, the result of my own meditations is not merely what is written below, but the whole of the present book. Many of the issues treated in it were really raised, clarified and resolved by such meditations.
Meditation is to a great many people something unknown or that smacks of mysticism. But, as the sample discourse below demonstrates, what goes on during meditation – in this case, the technique of ‘breath-awareness’ – is very down to earth and accessible to all. One is not turned into a zombie, but remains quite conscious and even active. Meditation for philosophical purposes obviously involves curiosity, asking questions, seeking answers. Notice the kind of detail one looks out for, and the kind of information one can draw from it. An effort is required, but the emphasis is on observation and memory, rather than on conversation (which can be done later).
I sometimes find it hard at first to get focused on the breath. So to try and generate and hold my attention, I may ask myself what my purpose and belief in doing it might be. But a mercantile attitude is counterproductive. One may think, to begin with, “I want to now meditate on my breathing,” so as to set oneself on course and avoid mental dispersion, but one should not hang on to this thought thereafter.
In general, meditation teachers recommend that we avoid using meditation as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. We are advised to go ‘above’ a mere pursuit of psychic rest, calm, serenity (which is what I often seem content with nowadays), or as here of philosophical knowledge (which can get nervous and verbose), or even of the greater ambitions of ‘illumination’ (the promise of oriental traditions that meditation leads to a radical review of reality).
This is also true with reference to a particular object of meditation, such as the breath. If I view breath-awareness merely as a technique (akin to a meaningless mantra or mandala) that will hopefully propel me into concentration and samadhi, then my interest in the breath itself is artificial. I therefore try to think of the breath as something special, on a biological and possibly on a metaphysical level (yogis regard it as in itself revealing as to the ‘nature of reality’).
The secret of success in breath-awareness meditation is to enjoy it. This is not meant in the sense of taking pleasure in it, but in the sense of having aroused one’s interest in it. Then one is able to patiently watch one’s breath in all its details, and persevere in this without especial effort for more than a brief while.
Breath-awareness is primarily a tactile meditation, in that I feel my body parts moving or the impact of air in different parts of my nostrils. Of course, one may experience other sensations, such as smells or sounds coming from the environment, or be subject to all sorts of imaginations and thoughts, but as one’s concentration on the breath increases all these tend to fall away. Also, the end result of breath-awareness is more mental than physical.
There is, at first or sometimes, an allied sound component, in that I hear the sound of air passing through my nose; but as my state-of-mind gets to be calmer, my breath gets to be less and less noisy, till I cannot rely on its sound at all to remain aware of it, but must concentrate on the touch and motion aspects purely.
An error in such meditation is to accompany each in-breath or out-breath with an internal sound (i.e. a sound in the head, a mental sound). It is as if the will needs to ‘play a tune’ or ‘sing a song’ for the breath to happen. This is evidence that you are not observing natural breath, but are interfering with your will, and you do so in such case by mimicking the sound of breath, as a means of producing breath.
I currently meditate with my eyes closed, to limit sensory inputs and get more inward. But if I consider the experience with eyes open, certain visual factors must be added to the above. Primarily, I see the movement of my body with the breath (rise and fall of my chest).
Also, I visualize the breath going in and out of my nose and/or my abdomen. Such mental seeing or imaging is perhaps less strong with eyes open than with eyes closed. But in any case it constitutes the equivalent in the realm of the visual, to the inner sound mentioned above. This too is an error of meditation, in that the will is interfering with the phenomenon, artificially adding things to it.
However, upon reflection, I must temper the above remarks on errors of meditation.
First, to say that such internally generated sounds and sights can themselves be taken as objects of meditation. If one can stop them dead by willpower, so well and good: the meditation is made easier by being limited to natural objects. Often this is not feasible, and one must let the mind gradually calm down: in such case, creations of the will are to be accepted as a kind of natural object among others, and observed without being perturbed, without ‘fighting’ them.
Secondly, it must be noted that such inner auditory and visual appearances may not-be the work of a perverse will. They may simply be a biological necessity, having to do with the correlation between sense-modalities. To the tactile sensations of breathing, in the absence of corresponding physical sounds one needs mental sound substitutes, and in the absence of corresponding physical sights one needs mental image substitutes. Such equivalences may be a natural product, a sort of ongoing ‘dictionary’ translating experiences in the one sense-modality into experiences in the other.
But I must add that in my experience this parallelism evaporates after awhile (in some cases it is absent from the start, in some cases it comes and goes); so it cannot be an absolute need, but rather simply a tendency; i.e. we must admit that pure tactile experiences are possible, without visual-auditory accompaniments whether physical or mental.
Also, the impression that the will is involved is often, though admittedly not always, quite marked; so we must not generalize either way, i.e. mental events are sometimes willed and sometimes not.
Third, it should be noted that some yogic meditations involve visualization or auditory imagination as positive techniques, aids to meditation. Some such techniques may be inventions of charlatans, but I can claim personal experience of effective methods (e.g. in ajapa jap, imagining ‘psychic’ breath going from the muladhara energy center to that of agya and back, and sounding so and hum as it does so). It follows that interference of the will cannot be regarded as automatically faulty, but may be used constructively.
In this context we must note that at least some Buddhists seem to regard the willed/mental and natural/external as ultimately one and the same. Their difference is an illusion; everything is ultimately mental or everything is ultimately physical, the distinction becomes meaningless. This may be an experience at deeper intensities of meditation or it may be a theory that seemed fitting to certain metaphysicians. In any case, it calls upon us to temper our reaction to the interference of will in meditation.
When I sit in meditation, I find it is best to ‘gradually become aware of the breath’ (as my teachers have taught me). For if I turn my attention to my breathing too suddenly, I produce a stir in it, it loses its natural regularity somewhat and becomes uneven. It is as if, almost inevitably, when we call upon our cognitive power, we awaken uncalled-for volitions. I infer that turning one’s attention is a very fine act of volition; if done heavy-handedly, the volition is too strong and has an impact on the object. That is a defeat of the starting intention, to concentrate on the breath.
We must therefore learn, by trial and error, to be more delicate, and will just enough for pure cognition and not so much as to affect its object. The modification of the object may consist in addition or suppression or a combination of both (alteration). The infusion of imaginary sounds or sights are examples. A more extreme example is thought about the breath, which may totally erase all perceptual awareness of the breath and carry us into some long discourse involving verbal and dream elements, which may after awhile have nothing to do with the original object of meditation (our breathing here and now).
This brings us into the complexities of conflict between thought and meditation. Ideally, meditation is free of the interference of thought; it is empty-minded, serene observation. In practice, one has often to contend with all sorts of mental disturbances, and the trick then is to somehow get into a position of observer of these ongoing thoughts. Perhaps the way into the observer’s role is not so much to place oneself above, but to reserve a little place (a modest fraction of self) adjacent to the turbulent events. A commanding position is not easy to get into; all we need is to gain a foothold, to obtain a small observation platform. One should not fight the thinking or hope to smother the thoughts, but accept them and try only to at the same time be accepted by them as a curious spectator. After a while, thought may fade away, as if shy to be seen.
The above needs some further clarifications. The interference of will occurs especially when I try using the breath-counting technique proposed by certain Buddhists. This technique is useful, to force your attention on the breath immediately, after which you can hold it there more easily. It happens that such counting becomes divorced from the awareness of breath, but that is not the main problem. Rather, the disadvantage of such counting is that one usually (with very rare exception) gets involved in control of the breath.
To make the breath more noticeable, one intensifies it or exaggerates it.
There is also a tendency to lengthen one’s breath, so as to make it healthier and calmer.
To fit it into one’s counting, one tries to make it more regular, i.e. to make each breath as a whole equal in length to the preceding (even if the in and out breaths are of unequal lengths).
These distortions in tactile mode are exacerbated by inner sounds and sights that parallel the willed breath, helping to form it and direct it.
One must also avoid opposite reactions to these distortions, like trying to make one’s breath more natural by making it uneven! The goal is always to observe the breath as it is, in as much detail as possible. If the breath is unnoticeable, that absence is good enough to observe.
For these reasons, I have personally stopped using the breath-counting method (though I am of course free to use it occasionally if I feel like it). I find it wiser to just let my mind calm down by itself, and then gradually become aware of my breath. This does not always work, it depends on my energetic state (how rested and well-fed I am, and so forth); but this dependence exists with the other method too. It seems illogical to me to disturb my mind in an attempt to calm it; it is like trying to stop turbulences in water or air by waving your arms about. Though sometimes, admittedly, jogging a bit improves one’s walking.
What ultimately makes breath noticeable and natural is the increased concentration on it one eventually acquires. At first, one is ‘distant’ from one’s breath; later, with skill, one is right there ‘in the midst’ of it. The sense of ‘physical’ distance between the observer and the observed is an expression of mental distance from one’s meditation. As one’s concentration on the breath increases, one feels oneself (the observer) to be placed in the nose or in the chest or solar plexus, where the breath (the observed) is being watched.
Watching carefully, one notices the differences between incoming and outgoing breaths. In my case (other people may differ), my in-breath seems usually somewhat rougher, louder and shorter than the out-breath. The former is more physical; the latter is more mental. Furthermore, one should note the differences in air intake or outflow between the two nostrils. In my case, these are partly due to a broken nose; but yoga teaches us that the use of our nostrils vary with the time of day, for instance.
Note well the above remarks are not intended as a guide to meditation. My own favorite guide is: Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (NY and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1973).